Just 33 minutes into the New Year, NASA’s New Horizons probe made space exploration history, flying by the most distant body ever explored.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, said Tuesday it had “zipped past” the object known as 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule.
New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million mission launched in 2006, was due to collect data for four hours after the flyby.
NASA is holding a mid-morning briefing to give updates on the success of the mission.
In 2015, New Horizons flew by Pluto, then the farthest object visited by a spacecraft from Earth. Tuesday’s encounter took place 1.6 billion kilometers past Pluto, some 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.
“Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!! EVER,” tweeted the project’s lead scientist, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.
He called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969.
Ultima Thule was discovered in June 2014 by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which was trying to find new targets for New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt, the third region of the solar system.