You may have been partying too hard to notice, but space history was made in the early hours of yesterday. As the Earth rang in 2019, four billion miles away a Nasa probe was taking a photo of a minor planet called Ultima Thule.
Little more than a big rock and described as resembling a peanut in shape, it is the furthest object ever explored by mankind.
While the image sent back following a fly-past by the New Horizons probe is only a white blur, the low-quality picture indicates the spacecraft made it intact through the risky, high-speed encounter.
Further photographs are due to be received over the coming weeks and should be much clearer.
‘We have a healthy spacecraft,’ said mission operations manager Alice Bowman, as cheers erupted in the control room at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, US.
Also present was Queen guitarist Brian May, who holds an advanced degree in astrophysics. He said: ‘This is a night none of us is going to forget.’
The New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock in a region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.
The encounter took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
Hurtling through space at 32,000mph, the spacecraft made its closest approach within 2 200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.
Alan Stern, the lead planetary scientist for New Horizons, said Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.
‘The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation,’ he said.
‘Everything we are going to learn about Ultima – from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things – [is] going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system.’ Scientists do not know for certain if Ultima Thule is a single object or a cluster. But the image released yesterday showed its dimensions are about 22 miles long and nine miles wide.
Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Scientists decided to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.
Project scientist Hal Weaver of the Applied Physics Laboratory said humans didn’t even know the Kuiper Belt – a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system – existed until the 1990s. ‘This is the frontier of planetary science,’ he said
Ultima Thule (pronounced ‘thew-lee’) comes from the Latin for something beyond the boundaries of the known world
Officially known as 2014 MU69, it takes 295 years to complete one orbit of the Sun
It has been in deep-freeze preservation since the formation of our solar system 4.5billion years ago
It is one of thousands of similar objects at the edge of our solar system. The best known, Pluto, was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006