Home Science NASA starts new year with flyby of planetary body beyond Pluto – USA TODAY

NASA starts new year with flyby of planetary body beyond Pluto – USA TODAY

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NASA rang in the new year awaiting the flyby of a spacecraft near an icy planetary body roughly 1 billion miles away from Pluto.

NASA confirmed Tuesday the spacecraft New Horizons completed its flyby of Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. on January 1.

New Horizons is the first not only to explore Pluto, but flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a post to Twitter.

“This is what leadership in space exploration is all about,” said Bridenstine.

He also said New Horizons is the first spacecraft to directly explore an object “that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system.”

Ultima Thule sits in the Kuiper Belt, which is about 4 billion miles away from Earth.  

Team members and guest at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory gathered to celebrate both the New Year and the expected flyby of New Horizons, which launched in 2006.

The mission marked the first reconnaissance of Pluto, completing its closest approach to the planet in 2015. NASA said the goal of the New Horizons mission is to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt to study “the origins and outskirts of our solar system.”

Last week, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the agency’s social media accounts would be active despite a partial government shutdown.

“It’s the farthest exploration of worlds in history and without NASA able to get the word out, I think it’s going to be very much diminished for the public and that’s an unintended consequence of this shutdown,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern told Florida Today.

Florida Today and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.

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