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WATCH: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to fly past tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

LAUREL, Md. — A NASA spacecraft opens the new year at the most distant world ever explored, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

Flight controllers say everything looked good for New Horizons’ flyby of the tiny, icy object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday, 3 ½ years after its encounter with Pluto. Confirmation won’t come for hours, though, given the vast distance. The mysterious target nicknamed Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) is 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Scientists want New Horizons observing Ultima Thule, not phoning home. So they won’t know until late morning whether the spacecraft survived.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, was empty. Instead, team members and their guests gathered nearby for back-to-back countdowns at midnight and again 33 minutes later.

Queen guitarist Brian May, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, joined the team at Johns Hopkins for a midnight premiere of the song he wrote for the big event.

READ MORE: What we’ve learned about Pluto since the flyby

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