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Scientists chose to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

Just hours before a historic rendezvous with Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, scientists with NASA's New Horizons mission are getting a first tantalizing glimpse of their target.

Increasingly rich, detailed images of Ultima will start arriving on January 2, but already the deep space object looks elongated, not round, said New Horizons deputy project scientist John Spencer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Maryland headquarters of the New Horizons program.

The New Horizons spacecraft accomplished its primary mission on July 14, 2015, when it performed the first close encounter of Pluto.

An artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object as part of a potential extended mission after the Pluto flyby. "Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team".

May, who has researched dust clouds in the solar system, will be joining Stern and his planetary science team as they receive and analyze data from the New Horizons spacecraft.

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Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home.

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following that official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won't be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

The latest image of Ultima Thule from New Horizons, taken on December 30, 2018, when the spacecraft was at a distance of 1.9 million kilometres.

New Horizons will fly three times closer to Ultima than it did by Pluto, coming within 2,200 miles of it and providing a better look at the surface.

"It was Alan Stern, the project instigator of this awesome Nasa mission, who threw down the glove last May".

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"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think".

Spacecraft New Horizons is on course for a flyby of the Ultima Thule object on January 1, when it is expected to break its own record for humanity's most distant tour of a cosmic object.

'Because of where it was formed and the fact that Ultima is not large enough to have a geologic engine like Pluto and larger planets, we expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored.

The encounter comes almost 50 years after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon in July 1969.

"New Horizons will continue in that legacy", Stern wrote.

Both probes are still operational.

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