Published: Wed, January 02, 2019
Science | By Patricia Jimenez

New Horizons Spaceship Nearing Unique Encounter with Ultima Thule on January 1

New Horizons Spaceship Nearing Unique Encounter with Ultima Thule on January 1

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to go where no probe has ever gone before this New Year's Day, when it beams back data from a tiny world that sits more than six billion kilometers away at the edge of the solar system.

"We've never been to anything like this that's been kept in such a deep freeze so long", Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, told The Verge. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot.

Here's how you can follow NASA's history-making piano-sized spacecraft as it takes a snapshot of a fossil of our solar system just after midnight on January 1.

Here is the full schedule of milestones before and after the flyby.

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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. That is why New Horizon's flyby is very important for NASA.

The cosmic object, known as Ultima Thule, is about the size of the US capital, Washington, and orbits in the dark and frigid Kuiper Belt about a billion miles beyond the dwarf planet, Pluto. With thousands of instructions loaded into its onboard computers, it has begun its delicate dance, 1 billion miles past Pluto.

"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. At its closest point, New Horizons will be 2,200 miles (3,540 km) from Ultima Thule.

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way.

The stakes are high. It takes a radio signal about 6 hours 7 minutes to make that trip.

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The New Horizons flyby live stream kicked off on Friday, December 28 and will continue through to the New Year. Following on from its phenomenally successful flyby of Pluto, the spacecraft will perform its closest flyby of a small Kuiper Belt object at just after midnight in the US Eastern time zone-the one where the operations center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is located.

New Horizons passed Pluto in a historic 2015 flyby and has been traveling to Ultima Thule since then.

Special cameras created to shoot in low-light at high speeds, along with spectrometers and other instruments - some designed and built in San Antonio - will capture information about Ultima Thule's actual shape, and whether or not it has rings, a moon or an atmosphere.

Visiting it might allow scientists to better understand how the solar system we call home came to be.

"We don't have a second spacecraft coming by a week later".

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Again, New Horizons is photographing Ultima under some pretty hazardous conditions moving at more than 32,000 miles per hour with barely any sunlight. It is much smaller than Pluto, but its exact size and shape are unknown. When photographed and analyzed, scientists gain insights into the behaviors and physical composition of places far beyond ours.

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