On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is expected to make history by conducting the most distant flyby ever, by zooming past an object a billion miles past Pluto. It’s called “Ultima Thule,” meaning “beyond the known world.”
Occurring some 6.5 billion km (4 billion miles) from Earth, the flyby will set a new record for the most distant ever exploration of a Solar System object by a spacecraft.
New Horizons will gather a swathe of images and other data over the course of just a few hours leading up to and beyond the closest approach.
This is timed for 05:33 GMT.
At that moment, the probe will be about 3,500km from Ultima’s surface and moving at 14km/s.
When its observations are complete, the robotic craft will then turn to Earth to report in and begin downlinking the gigabytes of information stored in its memory.
Mission scientists, gathered in a control center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, are excited at what lies in prospect.
“It’s electric. People across the whole team are ready. They’re in the game and we can’t wait to go exploring,” says New Horizons’ principal investigator Prof Alan Stern.
The probe is famous for making the first ever visit to the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015. To reach Ultima, it has had to push 1.5 billion km deeper into space.
More at the BBC