NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has sent official word of its triumph after getting humanity's first up-close look at Pluto.

Confirmation of the $700m US spacecraft's mission success came late on Tuesday night local time in the US, 13 hours after the actual flyby.

After a day of both jubilation and tension, New Horizons team finally celebrated in full force.

"This is truly a hallmark in human history," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's science mission chief. "It's been an incredible voyage."

Early indications had been encouraging, and a cheering, flag-waving celebration swept over the mission operations center in the US state of Maryland at the time of closest approach on Tuesday morning.

Whatever these images will show will be an amazing discovery

Francisco Diego, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London

But until New Horizons phoned home Tuesday night, there was no guarantee the spacecraft had buzzed the small, icy, faraway - but no longer unknown - world.

New Horizons snapped pictures and collected data from a distance of about 12,500 km.

"The cameras will resolve details to about 50m only in size on the surface of Pluto, which is completely unprecedented," Francisco Diego, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London, told Al Jazeera.

"Whatever these images will show will be an amazing discovery."

Diego said the spacecraft did not have any fuel or any powerful rockets to decrease the speed and go around orbit so it would just fly past.


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Never before has a spacecraft ventured into the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons has been on its way there for more than nine years - a journey of almost five billion kilometres.

Already, the pioneering NASA mission has confirmed the existence of a polar ice cap on Pluto, and found nitrogen escaping from Pluto's atmosphere.

Stunning visual features are coming into focus for the first time, including a light-coloured heart shape nestled near a dark spot nicknamed "The Whale".

And more detail is expected in the days to come, according to deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin.

The New Horizons spacecraft lifted off aboard an Atlas V rocket on January 19, 2006 at Cape Canaveral, Florida [NASA/Getty Images]

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies