The New Horizons spacecraft blasted off January 19, 2006 for its trip to Pluto, and since 2015, has been moving deeper into space.
By the time the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach to Ultima Thule - scheduled for 12:33 a.m. Four billion miles from the sun, Ultima Thule receives only about.05 percent the sunlight as Earth. Well, in the months since that updated the probe has been speeding along at over 30,000 miles per hour and, as luck would have it, it'll reach its current destination on New Year's Day.
The ship up for the task is, of course, the New Horizons, the same craft that brought us not so long ago the very first close-ups of Pluto.
Scientists are looking forward to their first up close glimpse at a Kuiper Belt object and already have some mysteries to unravel. The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto. At this temperature, it's likely that Ultima hasn't changed much over time.
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That focus is key because Stern and the New Horizons team are attempting something that's never been done before: the farthest flyby of an an object in history, a record last set by the same team in 2015 at Pluto.
The object was previously known as 2014 MU69.
If all goes well, New Horizons will zip by Ultima Thule on New Year's Day at 12:33 a.m. EST (0533 GMT) at a whopping 39,000 miles per hour (62,764 km/h).
Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth.
The cosmic object, known as Ultima Thule, is about the span of the United States capital, Washington, and orbits in obscurity and frigid Kuiper Belt around a billion miles past the diminutive person planet, Pluto.
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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. Since Ultima is very far from the Sun, it's quite cold.
As San Antonio rings in the New Year, NASA expects to celebrate a historic first flyby on the edge of our solar system. Studying its properties could help scientists understand the earliest stages of our solar system. During that flyby, we got to see a complex world with icy mountains and frozen plains.
"We don't have a lot of information on the composition", said mission co-investigator Kelsi Singer of SwRI.
"At 32,000 miles an hour, if we hit something as small as a rice pellet, it would destroy the spacecraft - that would be the equivalent of hitting a Mack truck on the highway", Stern said. It was detected by scientists in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope. The big show will begin on the afternoon of Monday, December 31st, and it'll kick off three days of news and briefings that will give us our best look yet at an extremely distant Solar System object. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States. Shortly after the Pluto flyby, NASA received funding to continue the mission, allowing the spacecraft to travel another billion miles past our former ninth planet, deep into what is known as the Kuiper Belt.
NASA selected the Kuiper Belt, a "twilight zone" stretching beyond the planet Neptune.
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Pelletier has worked on a number of other space missions, including the voyage the Cassini spacecraft took to Saturn, and he also participated in the Mars Curiosity landing. "That's one of the things we're really excited to learn".