NASA Spacecraft Performs Historic Flyby 4 Billion Miles From Earth

This image made available by NASA on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 shows images with separate color and detail information, and a composited image of both, showing Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (NASA via AP)

(CN) – On a journey that has taken it to the edge of the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back a photo of Ultima Thule on Wednesday, an icy object shaped like a snowman.

New Horizons passed by Ultima Thule just past 12:30 a.m. EST Tuesday morning near the Kuiper belt, a collection of objects and dwarf planets some 4 billion miles from the Earth. The flyby represents the furthest object in our solar system captured in a photo.

The photo and other information about the object took six hours to travel from the spacecraft back to Earth.

Alice Bowman, mission operations manager, announced the success of the flyby to cheers of NASA scientists and engineers at mission control.

“We have a healthy spacecraft,” Bowman said. “We’ve just accomplished the most distant flyby.”

New Horizons traveled within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, allowing it to take several higher-resolution photos that will transmit back to NASA in days and weeks to come.

The object was originally caught on the spacecraft’s long-range camera, but it appeared as a bowling pin.

“That bowling pin is gone,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons in a press conference. “It’s a snowman, if anything at all.”

The photo shows the two lobes – named Ultima and Thule – are red in color as radiation likely discolored their icy surface.

The lobes, once orbiting the sun separately, came together and combined into a single object at a very slow speed just after the formation of the solar system, according to Jeff Moore, leader of New Horizon’s geology and geophysics team.

“We think what we’re looking at it is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft, and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system,” Moore said.

New Horizons launched in 2006 with the goal of making the first flyby of Pluto. It flew past the dwarf planet in 2015, revealing new information about its landscapes. The mission is slated to end in 2021 unless NASA approves an extension.

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