NASA rang in the New Year on Tuesday with a historic spill over to the farthest and probably the oldest cosmic body ever explored by humanity – a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule – hoping to learn more about how the planetary form.
"Go new horizons!" said leading scientist Alan Stern as a crowd, including children dressed in space suits, divorced the horns of the parties and greeted the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to commemorate the moment at 12:33 pm when the spaceship New Horizons cameras in space rock 6.4 billion kilometers away in a dark and frigid region of space known as Kuiper Belt.
While scientists promoted the first glimpse of the old bloc of planets, the flight took place about a billion miles from Pluto, which until then was the farthest world ever in the vicinity of the spacecraft.
The real-time video of the actual spillover was impossible, because the signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship takes more than six hours, and another six hours for the answer to arrive.
The first signal back to Earth should arrive about 10 hours after the flight, about 9:45 am (1:45 am AEDT, Wednesday), letting NASA know if the New Horizons survived a risky, fast-paced meeting.
Flying through the universe at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft was intended to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles from the surface of Ultima Thule.
"This is one night that none of us will forget," said Queen guitarist Brian May, who also has an advanced degree in astrophysics – and who recorded a solo song to honor the spacecraft and its spirit of research.
Stern says Ultima Thule is unique because it is a remnant of the early days of the solar system and can provide answers about the origin of other planets.
"The subject is in such a deep freeze that is perfectly preserved from its original formation," he said.
"Everything we learn about Ultima – from its composition to its geology to how it was originally made, whether there are satellites and atmosphere and such things – will teach us about the initial conditions of the formation of objects in the solar system."
How does it look?
Scientists are not sure what the Ultima Thule (expressed TOO-lee) looks like – whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or cluster.
It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope and is believed to be about 12-20 miles long.
The obscure and pixelated image published Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists, as it seems to have an elongated hole, not circular space rocks.
The space ship was to collect 900 images over a few seconds while shaving. Even clearer images should arrive over the next three days.
"Now it's only a matter of time to see the data that follows," said deputy researcher John Spencer at the Southwest Research Institute.
Scientists decided to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which began in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the farthest images ever taken from the dwarf planet.
Stern said that the goal is to make pictures of Ultima, which are three times larger than the team's resolution for Pluto.
The boundary of planetary science
Ultima Thule is named for the mythical, far north island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.
Project scientist Hal Waver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said that people did not even know the Kuiper Belt – a huge ring of relics from the formed days of the solar system – existed until the 1990s.
"This is the boundary of planetary science," Wyver said.
"At last we reached the periphery of the Solar System, these things that were there from the beginning and were difficult to change – we think, we will find out."
Another space ship, NASA, Osiris-Rex, also set a new record on Monday with an orbiting asteroid Bennu, the smallest cosmic object – a diameter of about 500 meters, which was once rounded up by the spacecraft.
NASA said the orbit of 110 million kilometers was a "jump for mankind," since no spacecraft ever "circled so close to such a small space object-the one with barely enough gravity to keep the vehicle in a stable orbit."
The double planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time that people have ever explored another world when US astronauts orbited the moon of Apollo 8 in December 1968.
"While celebrating the New Year's holiday, imagine up and think about the incredible things our country and our species can do when we put our minds on it," Stern wrote on Monday in the New York Times.