On Monday, Dec, 31, 2018, NASA said the spacecraft would have a New Year's Day 2019 encounter with a mysterious object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", 1 billion miles beyond Pluto on the fringes of our solar system. Imagers and spectrometers captured hundreds of photos as the spacecraft buzzed within 2,200 miles of the 20-mile-wide agglomeration of ice and rock, at a relative speed of 32,000 mph.
Researchers are interested in small objects in the far reaches of the solar system, asteroids and comets, because they could contain clues to the solar systems origin story. Detailed images won't be available immediately, as it takes around six hours for the data to arrive back on Earth.
We will only know what Ultima Thule's surface looks like once New Horizons has sent back the first pictures after it has flown by, although based on observations of similar-sized Solar System objects, it will nearly certainly display impact craters And this is what is really exciting - We will get a chance to study the earliest history of the solar system and its planets. NASA's Pluto exploring probe will pass Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST on January 1, 2019, marking the ideal New Year's day for astronomy lovers.
Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect.
The object was previously known as 2014 MU69.
In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and selected it for New Horizon's extended mission in 2015. It will become the most distant world ever explored by humankind.
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A blob in the viewfinder: Ultima viewed from New Horizons on 24 December. "Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team". In the space of one 72-hour period, Ultima Thule will be transformed from a pinpoint of light - a dot in the distance - to a fully explored world. "Also by counting the number and impactors that have hit Ultima Thule, we can learn about the number of small objects in the outer Solar System".
"The Voyagers and Pioneers flew through the Kuiper Belt at a time when we didn't know this region existed", Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement.
At 10:28 am EST today, New Horizons made its pre-programed "phone home", letting the mission team back on Earth know that the craft completed the flyby unharmed.
Scientists define the Kuiper Belts as a huge zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune. The processed image on the right confirms the object's elongated shape. For example, the mission team still can not tell whether Ultima is a single or binary object. Now, the Kuiper Belt is thought to include millions of icy objects, unused planetary building blocks left over from the earliest days of the solar system. Hard water ice forms the bedrock on Pluto with softer ices on top, such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. And it's been out there since the solar system formed over 4 billion years ago.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Alan Stern is the principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission. It will also measure the Kuiper Belt's environment.