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"We're very confident in the spacecraft and very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima", said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 31 press conference.

NASA's New Horizons explorer successfully "phoned home" on Tuesday after a journey to the most distant world ever explored by humankind, a frozen rock at the edge of the solar system that scientists hope will uncover secrets to its creation.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said. "We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmissions ... science to help us understand the origins of our solar system". It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed - and survived - the encounter.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

What does it look like?

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck.

This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.9 million km away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock. The team is expecting the images that will come down in the coming days to be far more intricate, with the most-detailed image being distributed on Thursday (Jan. 3).

"This flyby is the culmination of years of careful planning and hard work, and we can't wait to transform Ultima Thule into a real world", said New Horizons project manager Dr. Helene Winters, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "This is exploration at its finest", said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

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The flyby will be fast, at a speed of nine miles per second.

Stern said the goal was to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Ultima lies 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, in a ring of icy worlds known as the Kuiper Belt.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

"What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our Solar System will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space".

In an editorial in The New York Times, Stern recalled that December 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when U.S. astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8.

With Ultima Thule keeping its secrets right up until the last moment, it seems, there's really no telling exactly what New Horizons will find as it whizzes past tonight.

"As you celebrate New Year's Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the incredible things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it", Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday.


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