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

New Horizons space probe set to fly by furthest object ever explored

New Horizons probe closes in on remote body Ultima Thule

"Ultima Thule means "beyond Thule" - beyond the borders of the known world - symbolising the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never before done", the USA space agency said in a statement.

The Queen guitarist, 71, is releasing New Horizons, his first solo work in over two decades, as a "tribute" to the spacecraft of the same name.

NASA will be ringing in 2019 with an historical flyby to explore the unknown.

"After guiding New Horizons for 13 years and more than 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km), we are poised to conduct the farthest flyby in history and reveal a new world".

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be flying by Ultima Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt. Ultima Thule was only discovered four years ago, and its orbit and surroundings still aren't well known.

"New Horizons will map Ultima Thule, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere", said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, also of Southwest Research Institute.

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Ultima will soon become the most distant world humanity has ever visited.

From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members calculated its reflectivity, which is only about 10%, or about as dark as garden dirt.

Helene Winters, the missions project manager, said spacecraft operators have been subsisting on chocolate and sleeping on air mattresses at APL so they can make the most of every minute until New Horizons reaches its target.

The New Horizons team has a number of experiments planned for the brief encounter. The great distances from Earth and the sun mean scientists must put up with a long communications lag and instruments must operate with very little light.

That will require new ways of using the camera, though.

May, who has a doctorate in astrophysics, said: "This project has energised me in a new way".

"The big bottleneck is being able to send data back", he said, given the low bandwidth available at the spacecraft's extreme distance from the Earth.

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That concept, Weaver added, is still in the "drawing board" stage of development. Its cameras must swivel to track Ultima Thule as it passes by; otherwise, all it will see is a blur amid the black.

Despite the partial USA government shutdown, sparked by a feud over funding for a border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the U.S. space agency would broadcast the flyby.

But much of Ultima's mystery will diminish in the next few days. "What we'll have to do is build a generic flyby mode and do a flyby on warning if we detect it from onboard the spacecraft".

"It was Alan Stern, the project instigator of this unbelievable Nasa mission, who threw down the glove last May".

At New Horizon's birthplace, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, scores of space scientists gathered to study - and celebrate - the occasion. That is in addition to the $720 million cost of New Horizons' primary mission to fly by Pluto, which ran through 2017.

Stern said that the project will prepare a proposal for another extended mission in mid-2020 for the next senior review of planetary science missions.

"It's really a puzzle", said Stern in a statement last week. "I've been trying to keep people from thinking about that", he said of a second flyby, "and be focused on Ultima".

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