NASA Spaceship Closes in on Distant World

NASA New Horizon Ultima Thule Pluto

The space object, dubbed "Ultima Thule", is like a frozen time capsule that will give scientists unprecedented insight into deep space.

An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto, on January 1, 2019. Ultima Thule might help scientists to study the formation history of our solar system. No spacecraft has visited anything so primitive.

"To me, that is what's most exciting-this is pure exploration and fundamental science".

"MU69 is humanity's next Ultima Thule", Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement.

New Horizons, which launched in 2006, previously captured stunning images of Pluto when it flew by the dwarf planet in 2015.

Mission operations aren't affected by the partial government shutdown and, earlier today, NASA announced that its social media and television teams will be able to cover the flyby event. Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) is a nickname chosen by the mission team following a public naming contest. Just seeing what's out in the Kuiper Belt - which is so far away that on a telescope it looks like a swarm of lightning bugs on a fuzzy black and white television - is a huge win for astronomers, but the prize discovery will come from Ultima Thule itself.

The New Horizons probe will photograph the extraterrestrial object during a flyby in an attempt to better understand the outer reaches of the Milky Way.

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot.

The final sequence of flyby instructions were sent on Christmas Day.

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

As it stands, New Horizons will flyby Ultima Thule from a distance of 3,500 kilometers ( about 2,200 miles) - its optimal path. The coast should be clear: Scientists have yet to find any rings or moons around it that could batter the spacecraft. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed - and survived - the encounter. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck.

"It's estimated to have a diameter of 30 kilometres right now, " Pelletier said.

What happens beyond Ultima Thule?

They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth.

"Remember, it's about the size of greater San Antonio, and about as reflective as garden variety dirt", Stern said.

Ultima Thule is a enigmatic trans-Neptunian object found five billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt region. At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and therefore harder to track, making everything more challenging.

Alan Stern, Principal Investigator, New Horizons, speaking at media briefing December 28, 2018. Compare that with more than six hours at Ultima Thule. However, because New Horizons is going to be moving so fast as it passes the rock - around 32,000 miles per hour - it won't have long to make its observations.

Based on its circular orbit, as opposed to the elliptical orbits of the planets, Ultima Thule formed 4 billion miles away in the middle of the Kuiper Belt.

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education.

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