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An anxious spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

About 10 hours earlier, NASA celebrated the New Year's flyby, as mission managers - alongside kids dressed in space costumes - blew party horns to mark the moment at 12:33 am (0533 GMT) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

Comparing that travel time with the eight minutes it takes light from the Sun to reach Earth or the slightly over one second that it takes light from the Moon to reach Earth shows how far away the encounter with Ultima Thule was.

An unmanned NASA spacecraft sent a signal back to Earth Tuesday that it successfully made it through a risky flyby past the most distant planetary object ever studied, the USA space agency said. Just hours into the first day of 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft was confirmed to have made its historic flyby of the mysterious Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule without issue. Confirmation won't come for hours, though, given the vast distance. The Ultima Thule rendezvous was more complicated, given the distance from Earth, the much closer gap between the spacecraft and its target, and all the unknowns surrounding Ultima Thule.

While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, the agency's New Horizon's probe is not the farthest human-made object from Earth.

Tired from dual countdowns late Monday and early Tuesday, the New Horizons team members were visibly anxious as they reassembled in late morning.

The news was greeted with cheers by officials and onlookers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, home to Mission Control.

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"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 honor the spacecraft and its spirit of exploration.

This tiny, icy body has remained largely unchanged since the solar system's birth roughly five billion years ago, providing astronomers a kind of time capsule of conditions from that era.

Located more than 6bn km from the sun, the minor planet is an object that NASA researchers believe to be an important piece of evidence in the investigation of how our solar system formed, and is the farthest ever observed up close by humankind.

As it did in during the Pluto visit in 2015, the New Horizons mission has a connection to Mauna Kea on Hawaiʻi Island.

"Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down", said deputy project scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.

That better data won't take long to start turning up. The image (above) revealed what looked like a peanut or bowling pin, some 32 kilometers long by 16 kilometers wide, with a slight possibility still that MU69 could be a binary object. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

Not only was it the first-ever exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object; no other mission has ever targeted to and explored an object that wasn't even discovered when it launched, scientists say.

Ultima Thule essentially means "beyond Thule", which suggests something that lies beyond what is known. "We will find out".


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