Spacecraft to go beyond Pluto on New Year's Day cosmic rock flyby

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history'

NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever

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.

Ultima Thule is a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) located 4.1 billion miles from Earth in a cold asteroid belt where rocks are thought to be leftover remnants of the origins of our solar system.

New Horizons passed Pluto in a historic 2015 flyby and has been traveling to Ultima Thule since then. With the wildly successful flyby behind them, mission planners won an extension from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt.

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

The irregular-shaped rock was first discovered using the Hubble Telescope in June 2014, long after New Horizons left Earth back in January 2006 when Pluto was still considered a planet.

Already there is reason to believe something odd lies just around the corner. As per different scientific reports, Ultima Thule is about 19 miles in diameter! And even though there are reasonable explanations for this, having to deal with a mystery so early on does nothing but to entice researchers even further.

"That 0.26 meter/second burn lasted only 27 seconds and was executed perfectly by the spacecraft, cancelling about 300 kilometers (180 miles) of estimated targeting error and speeding up our arrival time by about five seconds", NASA said in a statement.

The first hints of what Ultima Thule really looks like will begin to emerge on December 31, when the piano-sized spacecraft is still further away from the object than the Earth is to the moon.

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The New Horizons mission was extended to observe Kuiper Belt objects after its Pluto flyby, with more than two dozen Kuiper Belt objects on the list. At this temperature, it's likely that Ultima hasn't changed much over time.

You can also watch when we receive data from New Horizons on the Deep Space Network website. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the mid-1990s made Pluto - the largest body in the belt - an attractive target, and many, including Stern, credit the discovery with getting the mission approved. "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".

New Horizons is scheduled to pass Ultima Thule at its closest point at 11:33 p.m. Monday.

"Remember, it's about the size of greater San Antonio, and about as reflective as garden variety dirt", Stern said. "However, it takes nearly six hours each way or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip to communicate with the spacecraft".

"What could be more exciting than that?" said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team. Four billion miles from Earth, it will be the farthest object explored in history.

"The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it's going to be challenging, and it's going to yield new knowledge", Stern wrote on the New Horizons blog.

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