NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

Ultima Thule as an elongated blob

Ultima Thule as an elongated

Only then will NASA know if New Horizons survived the close pass.

It is located in the Kuiper Belt, a huge asteroid belt that surrounds our solar system and contains the leftovers of the system's formation. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. Some of their only information about its size and shape comes from a series of coordinated observations last summer, when astronomers measured the shadow it cast as it passed in front of a star.

Just 33 minutes into the New Year, NASA's New Horizons probe made space exploration history, flying by the most distant body ever explored.

But New Horizons will finally fly by its target just after midnight on January 1, taking close-up photographs and sophisticated scientific measurements of what it sees.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the fly-by, around 9:45am (10:45pm Hong Kong time). This was the farthest object that any craft has ever visited.

NASA's robotic spacecraft, whose mission is to lurk around the outer corona of the Sun, is scheduled for its second solar encounter in April 2019.

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"What could be more exciting than that?" said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team. But NASA and JHUAPL were able to stream live webcasts and photos of the flyby.

To put into perspective just how incredible this is, the probe is two billion km past Neptune - the furthest of the classical planets - and 1.5 billion km past Pluto, which New Horizons studied in 2015. Asteroids became a popular destination too: Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down on the asteroid Ryugu in October and collected a sample that will return to Earth in 2020. The first post-flyby images will be unveiled on Wednesday, kicking New Horizons' long-running campaign of discovery back into high gear. New Horizons sped past Ultima at a speed of 32,000 mph, coming as close as 2,200 miles.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back its treasure trove of data, a process expected to last nearly two years. "We're a billion miles further than Pluto, and now we're going to keep going into the Kuiper Belt".

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth. Now, the Kuiper Belt is thought to include millions of icy objects, unused planetary building blocks left over from the earliest days of the solar system.

Ultima Thule orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto and has been locked in a state of deep-freeze preservation since the universe began some 4.5 billion years ago.

"My money is on the single body", said Weaver.

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The Kuiper Belt object was discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

Scientists say there are two possibilities for this: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.

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

"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first USA satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday, reports Space.com.

New Horizons' chief scientist Alan Stern told the BBC that Ultima presents researches with a rare opportunity to learn about the origins of the universe.

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