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New Horizons scientists discuss the flyby of Ultima Thule. Credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft phoned home on Tuesday morning, confirming that the spacecraft successfully completed the most distant flyby ever conducted of a space object. At 12:33 a.m., the craft passed within about 2,200 miles of a Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule.

Why it matters: Ultima Thule, which is located about 4 billion miles from Earth, is thought to be a time capsule from the formation of the solar system itself about 4.6 billion years ago. Information from New Horizons is expected to provide researchers with new data about how planets form.

  • The flyby required scientists to stretch the capabilities of the New Horizons spacecraft to its limit. As it sped past Ultima Thule, which is about 80 times smaller than Pluto, New Horizons was traveling at about 32,000 miles per hour, while gathering data from its seven instruments on board.

The big picture: Researchers say they know a very limited amount about Ultima Thule, whose nickname means "beyond the known world." It's the first Kuiper Belt object ever to be closely explored by a spacecraft.

  • The Kuiper Belt, where Ultima Thule is located, is a region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that are thought to be leftovers from the solar system's early days.
  • Based on imagery and other data from New Horizons' approach, scientists think it's an elongated, spinning object closely resembling a peanut. It's also thought to be reddish in color.
  • There are thought to be hundreds of thousands of objects like Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt, and the spacecraft will attempt to gather data on others to learn more about them, and how Ultima Thule might differ from them.

What's next: Expect to see more images and data from Ultima Thule later Tuesday and over the next 20 months. Given the spacecraft's distance from Earth, it takes about six hours for data to be transmitted one way back to Earth at 1,000 bits per second.

Go deeper: NASA is about to make space exploration history

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.

Off the Rails

Episode 2: Barbarians at the Oval

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 2: Trump stops buying what his professional staff are telling him, and increasingly turns to radical voices telling him what he wants to hear. Read episode 1.

President Trump plunked down in an armchair in the White House residence, still dressed from his golf game — navy fleece, black pants, white MAGA cap. It was Saturday, Nov. 7. The networks had just called the election for Joe Biden.

Fringe right plots new attacks out of sight

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Domestic extremists are using obscure and private corners of the internet to plot new attacks ahead of Inauguration Day. Their plans are also hidden in plain sight, buried in podcasts and online video platforms.

Why it matters: Because law enforcement was caught flat-footed during last week's Capitol siege, researchers and intelligence agencies are paying more attention to online threats that could turn into real-world violence.