NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft will ring in the new year by exploring the most distant and mysterious world ever studied.
Astronomers call it Ultima Thule, meaning “beyond the known world.” The distant object is a frozen relic of the solar system some four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.
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. The Kuiper Belt is populated by millions of small, icy bodies, including Pluto.
The flyby is a second for New Horizons, which flew by Pluto in July of 2015.
However, the encounter is happening amid a partial U.S. government shutdown that began Dec. 22. So, that’s why some of NASA’s public outreach feeds were initially silenced. JHUAPL has taken over mission briefings (like today’s webcast) and will provide live updates via the JHUAPL YouTube page for flyby events on Monday and Tuesday (Dec. 31 and Jan. 1). You can see a full schedule here.
So, if all goes according to plan, the probe will fly by the object, Ultima Thule, at 12:33 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Jan. 1.
“We’re excited to explore a kind of object that has never been seen before,” Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, said in advance of the flyby. “Thinking about the scale and magnitude of the exploration we’re conducting, and I would say people are close to climbing the walls with anticipation.”
Astronomers have almost no idea what awaits them. “What’s it going to look like? No one knows. What’s it going to be made of? No one knows. Does it have rings? Moons? Does it have an atmosphere? Nobody knows. But in a few days we’re going to open that present, look in the box, and find out,” says Alan Stern.
A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is currently zooming in on Ultima Thule, so scientists can get a better sense of its shape and configuration—whether it is one object or several.
Communicating with a spacecraft that is so far away takes six hours and eight minutes each way—or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip.
Astronomers eagerly await the New Horizons’ “phone home” command expected to happen on January 1 at 10:29 am (1529 GMT). Thus, indicating if it survived the close pass—at a distance of just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers).
Until then, the New Horizons spacecraft continues speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour. Therefore, traveling almost a million miles per day.
Thumbnail image: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zoom past Ultima Thule. An icy Kuiper Belt object about 4 billion miles from Earth. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI