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A NASA spacecraft has flown past the most distant world ever studied by mankind, Ultima Thule, a tiny frozen relic of the early solar system that could reveal how planets formed.
The US space agency rang in the new year on Tuesday with the landmark flyby of the cosmic body located four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometres) from the Earth.
“Go New Horizons!” said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33 am (05.33 GMT) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock.
Offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, the flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
The flyby comes three-and-a-half years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and yielded the first close-ups of the dwarf planet.
Real-time video of the actual flyby was impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, and another six hours for the response to arrive.
The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (14:45 GMT), letting NASA know if New Horizons survived the risky, high-speed encounter.
Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles an hour, the spacecraft aimed to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.
“This is a night none of us are going to forget,” said Queen guitarist Brian May, who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics – and who recorded a solo track to honour the spacecraft and its spirit of exploration.