NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has set the bar high for exploration in the new year, and did it just moments after the start of 2019.
The spacecraft, which was the first to image Pluto in the summer of 2015, flew past the distant Kuiper Belt Object known as Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year's Day.
The fly-by marked the first time a spacecraft has flown close enough to directly image and survey this object, and scientists say they are hopeful that the encounter will bring a new era of exploration of the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system.
Signals confirming the spacecraft is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center mid-morning Tuesday, almost exactly 10 hours after New Horizons' closest approach to the object.
Images taken during the spacecraft's approach, which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles.
Scientists say another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other.
More examination of the data will determine whether this is one object or two, as well as answering other questions about this object.
The New Horizons spacecraft will continue downloading images and other data in the days and months ahead, completing the return of all science data over the next 20 months.
New Horizons launched from Florida in January 2006. Nine years into its journey, the spacecraft began its exploration of the Kuiper Belt with a flyby of Pluto and its moons.
Almost 13 years after the launch, the spacecraft will continue its exploration of the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021.
Team members plan to propose more Kuiper Belt exploration.