NASA’s New Horizons Will Embark on Historic Flyby on New Year’s Day

New Horizon's flight path. Image NASA

Now the New Year is going to be more special for the space-savvy creatures as NASA's New Horizon Spacecraft will fly by the minor planet nicknamed Ultima Thule. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of January 1 - 12:33 a.m. EST.

On January 1st, 2019, the spacecraft will come very, very close to Ultima Thule.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will shoot past rock 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, at more than 31,500 miles per hour Monday night.

New Horizons travels through deep space at 30,000 miles per hour and covers almost a million miles a day, which makes the interception and timing of photos of a space object a wee bit trickier than timing New Year's Eve ball drop.

As you can see, anyone who is staying up for the big ball to drop and kick off the new year on the East Coast will only have to wait a little while to catch live coverage of the New Horizons spacecraft's close approach to Ultima Thule. The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto. In temperatures that cold, the rocks have essentially been frozen in time for billions of years. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. Its official designation is 2014 MU69. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. "NASA will announced a" data download schedule" that will give us all a better sense of when to expect even more news about Ultima Thule.

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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.

"New Horizons will map Ultima, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere, " said the mission's principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". Researchers hope to have the first close-up images of Ultima Thule as early as the afternoon of 1 January.

We can make some inferences based on what we know about the Kuiper Belt, though. "New Horizons is on the hunt to understand these objects, and we invite everyone to ring in the next year with the excitement of exploring the unknown". It was detected by scientists in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is much smaller than Pluto, but its exact size and shape are unknown.

Stern said any new discoveries from Ultima Thule will help unlock mysteries of the solar system's history. It was never perturbed or moved, and it formed in an area where ice is as strong and hard as rock, so it never melted or formed a core. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune.

"We expect to have an image with nearly 10,000 pixels on Ultima ready for release on January 2", Dr Stern said.

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