NASA’s New Horizons is poised for a historic New Year’s Day flyby

Cristina Cross
December 31, 2018

On Christmas Day, NASA's Alan Stern, the New Horizons Principal Investigator, announced that the New Horizons probe is preparing to encounter Ultima Thule - a somewhat mysterious body found in a cloud of asteroids, comets and dwarf planets that is most commonly known as the Kuiper Belt.

The spacecraft's closest approach to this primitive space rock comes January 1 at 12:33 a.m. ET (0533 GMT). Furthermore, astronomical objects like Ultima Thule are of significant importance because they are believed to be the building blocks of planets.

Until then, the New Horizons spacecraft continues speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling nearly a million miles per day.

The Kuiper Belt is the edge of our solar system, part of the original disk from which the sun and planets formed. It takes a radio signal about 6 hours 7 minutes to make that trip.

"New Horizons snapped the first image of Ultima in August this year, and the images that will be captured will give a closer look at the small Kuiper Belt object". The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto.

As you can see, anyone who is staying up for the big ball to drop and kick off the new year on the East Coast will only have to wait a little while to catch live coverage of the New Horizons spacecraft's close approach to Ultima Thule. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. Its official designation is 2014 MU69.

In the months to come, New Horizons will beam back a wealth of data that won't be available on day one. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. A year before that historic encounter, astronomers discovered Ultima Thule, giving the mission team a tantalizing second target to visit. Beyond that, everything New Horizons sees will be a completely new discovery. "Nothing that we've ever explored in the entire history of space exploration has been kept in this kind of deep freeze the way Ultima has". Ultima Thule might help scientists to study the formation history of our solar system.

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"Our team feels like we have been riding along with the spacecraft, as if we were mariners perched on the crow's nest of a ship, looking out for dangers ahead", Mark Showalter, a researcher at the SETI Institute, said in a news release.

An artist's illustration of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft as it flies by Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto on January 1, 2019. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated.

The mission will create a number of additional firsts, as this will be the most distant flyby we've attempted.

At that distance temperatures are freezing - nearly absolute zero or -273 degrees C. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States.

"Because this is a flyby mission, we only have one chance to get it right", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons.

So what can we expect? "That's one of the things we're really excited to learn".

"The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it's going to be challenging and it's going to yield new knowledge", wrote Stern.

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