The first day of the new year has already delivered on a historic moment in science. Just hours into 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft was confirmed to have made its flyby of the mysterious Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule without issue.
New Horizons is moving faster than 30,000 miles an hour, meaning that its zip past the strange object really needed to be pulled off without even the slightest interference. After a slight course correction in mid-December, the spacecraft has done just that. New Horizons is now set to beam back some pretty important data, with some updates expected in the coming hours.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m really liking this 2019 thing so far,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a press conference following confirmation of New Horizons’ successful flyby. “We’re here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly.”
There’s much about the object we still don’t know, but scientists say they’ll be getting high-resolution images of Ultima Thule overnight. According to Stern, we can expect to see those on Wednesday. What we know about the object now is that it’s about 35 by 15 kilometers. Its strange shape means that it’s either bilobate or in fact two objects in orbit around each other. That’s another mysterious detail about (486958) 2014 MU69, as it’s officially known, that we’ll be able to say for certain tomorrow, Stern said.
New Horizons launched nearly 13 years ago as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program with the foremost mission of conducting a flyby of Pluto, which occurred in 2015. Its extended mission then set its sights on a new object further into the Kuiper Belt. Scientists picked Ultima Thule with help from the Hubble Space Telescope. Ultima Thule is about 44 AU from the Sun on average, or roughly 4 billion miles from Earth.
It will take 20 months, according to NASA, for New Horizons to send back all of its data. But NASA will be sharing updates throughout the day, so be sure to check back for more exciting New Horizons news.
And to follow along in real time, check out NASA’s live coverage here:
This story is developing and has been updated throughout.
Update 1/1/2019 12:48 p.m. ET: Scientists with NASA shared a slightly clearer image of what they affectionately referred to as a “pixelated blob” taken pre-flyby. It’s still unclear whether it’s one or two objects—we won’t know until Wednesday—but we have a better idea of its shape than ever before:
“New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history — 4 billion miles from the Sun,” Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. “The data we have look fantastic and we’re already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out the data will just get better and better!”