New Horizons probe sends first signal from Ultima Thule

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The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto hurtled toward a New Year's Day rendezvous with a tiny, icy world a billion miles farther out, in what would make it the most distant cosmic body ever explored by humankind.

'In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago'. He said the Ultima Thule flyby was "much more challenging" than the one the spacecraft performed of Pluto in July 2015.

The space craft made contact with NASA around 10:15 a.m. ET.

After that flyby, Stern and his colleagues set about searching for a new target in the Kuiper Belt, which extends from the edge of Neptune's orbit out to about 5 billion miles from the sun.

At New Horizon's birthplace, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., scores of space scientists gathered to study - and celebrate - the occasion.

"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far, " lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause. In this case, the probe will literally sweep past Ultima Thule at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour (51,000 kilometers per hour or about 14.6 kilometers per second).

The rewards will come over the next 20 months as New Horizons slowly transmits the estimated seven gigabytes of data collected during the flyby.

Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

Hal Weaver, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and a project scientist on the New Horizons mission, said: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity".

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.

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New Horizons can't talk to Earth and point to take observations at the same time, and so only after a post-flyby signal is received can the team really relax and begin to anticipate the scientific bonanza heading their way.

NASA's New Horizons probe has flown past Ultima Thule - a ball of dust and ice that's 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth. "Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away", he said.

Ultima Thule is the first destination to be reached that was not even known until after the spacecraft's launch.

"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.

It is - and the first decent images of Ultima Thule are likely already on their way back to Earth from the spacecraft.

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.

We'll soon find out.

'An even more weird scenario is one in which Ultima is surrounded by many tiny tumbling moons, ' said University of Virginia's Anne Verbiscer, a New Horizons assistant project scientist.

Dr Brian May is officially part of the New Horizons team, and drew quite a crowd to his briefing. "From here out the data will just get better and better!"