NASA's New Horizons spacecraft survives historic trip to world one billion miles beyond Pluto

/ CBS/AP

2019 poisted to be busy year for space events

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity's most distant exploration of another world. Ten hours after the middle-of-the-night encounter 4 billion miles away, flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, received word from the spacecraft late Tuesday morning.

Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control. An anxious spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto. Scientists say it will take nearly two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles beyond Pluto. At that distance, it takes six hours for the radio signals to reach Earth.

CBS News' Bill Harwood reported that on Sunday, moving within 1.2 million miles of its quarry, the nuclear-powered spacecraft was finally close enough to begin capturing images that showed more than a single point of light, revealing a clearly elongated body as suggested by earlier observations using ground-based telescopes.

JHU/APL

Ultima Thule is thought to be literally frozen in time, a pristine remnant of the original disk of rocky debris that coalesced to form the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

The first high-resolution image is expected to be unveiled during a news briefing Wednesday.

"This is a very mysterious object," said Hal Weaver, the New Horizons project scientist. "This is potentially the most primitive object that's ever been visited by a spacecraft. … We think it was one of the earliest objects that formed, and who the heck knows what it's going to look like, what it's going to tell us?"

First published on January 1, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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