"Anything is possible out there in this very unknown region", he said.
The revelers here at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory didn't yet know for sure whether the piano-sized probe actually survived the encounter.
A solo track recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - was set to be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation as NASA commentators describe the close pass. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission. December 13 was the last day for researchers to make the call to take New Horizons higher or lower, and according to Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in an interview with Space.com, it takes months to plan a new route. To me, it epitomizes the human spirit's unceasing desire to understand the universe we inhabit.
Now it hopes to solve the mystery surrounding Ultima Thule, which is believed to be a binary system but could be something much stranger.
An artist's conception of what Ultima Thule might look like. Ultima Thule orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto and is probably a bit of a time capsule from the early solar system. The space rock features a diameter of roughly 19 miles.
Researchers are interested in small objects in the far reaches of the solar system, asteroids and comets, because they could contain clues to the solar systems origin story.
The encounter with Ultima Thule ("Ul-ti-ma Too-lee", from a Latin phrase that basically signifies "a place beyond the known world") comes nearly 13 years since New Horizons was launched in 2006, and three and a half years since the probe flew past Pluto in 2015. "No one has ever seen a Kuiper Belt object as anything but a point of light". It has been flying through space for more than a dozen years.
New Horizons was on course to fly past the mysterious, ancient object nicknamed Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday.
The object was previously known as 2014 MU69.
"He asked if I could come up with a theme for Ultima Thule which could be played as the New Horizons probe reached this new destination". Its name means "distant places beyond the known world".
"It sounds like science fiction, but it's not", Alan Stern, the lead planetary scientist on the New Horizons mission, wrote in The New York Times on Monday.
At 12:15 am EST is when NASA will have its livestream of Ultima Thule, but it won't get a signal about the flyby until 9:45 a.m. It's hard to know the exact location of the object, although NASA published several graphical representations of the New Horizons' trajectory through the Kuiper Belt. No one has ever seen an object that's frozen nearly to absolute zero.
The mission also offers to sign up for New Horizons on Twitter, where you can join the conversation using the hashtags #UltimaThule, #UltimaFlyby and #askNewHorizons.
STERN: Really, we have no idea what to expect.
The craft will collect images and scientific data - including geological and atmospheric information - to beam back to Earth. A few black-and-white images of Ultima Thule might be available following the official confirmation, but close-ups won't be ready until later this week. And we can learn its composition.