New Horizons Nasa probe completes flyby of ancient world of Ultima Thule

Stern Ultima Thule flyby

Alan Stern principal investigator for New Horizons discusses the upcoming flyby at a Dec. 30 briefing at APL. Credit SpaceNews Jeff Foust

Nasa is preparing for a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever explored by humankind.

NASA's New Horizons probe is ringing in the new year by swinging by Ultima Thule, a small object in the Kuiper asteroid belt.

New Horizons was on course to fly past the mysterious, ancient object nicknamed Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

"This is a night none of us are going to forget", said Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - and who recorded a solo track to honor the spacecraft and its spirit of exploration.

The live broadcast can be followed at www.nasa.gov/nasalive.

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

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These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years.

Our Solar System is a big place, and Ultima Thule is very far away.

On Monday, he told reporters during a news briefing "I'd be kidding you if I didn't tell you we're also on pins and needles to see how this turns out".

"I think it is fitting that this Ultima Thule flyby is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 in 2018 and the 50th of Apollo 11 in 2019", said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

What does it look like?

Scientists are not sure exactly what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like - whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster.

This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

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This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn't appear to vary as it rotated. The team is expecting the images that will come down in the coming days to be far more intricate, with the most-detailed image being distributed on Thursday (Jan. 3).

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman gets a hug from New Horizons' principal investigator, Alan Stern, after word was received that the New Horizons spacecraft survived its encounter with Ultima Thule and has collected data.

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

The flyby will be fast, at a speed of nine miles per second.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa. Scientists hope to learn about those origins through New Horizons' observations deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, or frozen Twilight Zone, on the fringes of the solar system.

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