NASA spacecraft hurtles toward tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

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USA space probe New Horizons flew past 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule asteroid at the very edge of the solar system, making it the farthest from the Earth ever visited by a probe from our planet, NASA said on Tuesday.

Scientists suspect that these ancient objects have been preserved in relatively pristine condition since the beginnings of the still-forming solar system, some 4 billion years ago.

An unmanned NASA spacecraft has sent a signal back to Earth after making a successful fly-by past the most distant world ever studied by mankind.

Now it hopes to solve the mystery surrounding Ultima Thule, which is believed to be a binary system but could be something much stranger.

After trekking 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will now seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets.

A visualization of the New Horizons spacecraft flying by Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman gets a hug from New Horizons' principal investigator, Alan Stern, after word was received that the New Horizons spacecraft survived its encounter with Ultima Thule and has collected data.

In fact, retrieving information from New Horizons is so delayed that even NASA doesn't know with certainty that the spacecraft pulled off its mission without a hitch.

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Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

At mission control in John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, the New Horizons team has been using the spacecraft's cameras to snap new pictures of Ultima Thule on approach.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck. Some 12 years after being launched from Earth, New Horizons has only recently made it to Pluto in 2016, after a gruelling four billion mile journey.

In July of 2015, after travelling for over nine years in space, the New Horizons probe made history, by giving us our very first close-up look at Pluto and its moons. As a result, Ultima Thule wasn't even discovered until 2014.

There is no champagne in this dim and distant region, where a halo of icy worlds called the Kuiper belt circles the outermost edge of the solar system.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa. As such, it is "probably the best time capsule we've ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it", Stern said.

We'll soon find out.

New Horizons sweeps past Ultima Thule - described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet (computer simulation). Subsequent observations suggest it is small - no more 20 miles across - and peanut shaped. "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

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