New Horizons Spacecraft Closing In On Ultima Thule

New Horizons Alan Stern

Instead, team members and their guests gathered nearby for back-to-back countdowns at midnight and again 33 minutes later.

Tomorrow, Jan 2, at 8:55 pm EST, a better, 200-pixel image of Ultima Thule may be available, depending on how the rock is positioned.

Its destination, Ultima Thule, "is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", he added, recalling that December 1968 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when US astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8.

"Its geology and composition should teach us a lot about how these building blocks of small planets like Pluto were formed".

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footsteps on the moon in July 1969. One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Ultima Thule is whether or not it's made up of one object or two very close together.

FILE - This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

Spacecraft New Horizons is on course for a flyby of the Ultima Thule object on January 1, when it is expected to break its own record for humanity's most distant tour of a cosmic object. This configuration limits the spacecraft's communication with Earth, commanding it to quickly address any technical issues on its own, then get back to science.

A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock. Traveling at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. It's a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the considerable unknowns and because the spacecraft is older.

"The fact that we don't know anything about this makes it the most desirable object possible", said May.

"This week, New Horizons will continue in that legacy", Stern wrote.

"We will never forget this moment", said May who led the New Years countdown.

Brian's "New Horizons" track (Ultima Thule mix) celebrates the whole 12-year journey of New Horizons probe, and includes a message from Stephen Hawking congratulating the team on their successful rendezvous with Pluto three years ago. Because of the complicated schedule for New Horizons' observations, plus the 6-hour-plus time it takes for radio signals to travel from Ultima Thule to NASA's Deep Space Network, definitive word of success (or failure) won't come until hours later on New Year's Day. Data from watching this KBO pass in front of known background stars suggests that this is the likely shape of Ultima Thule.

Now, the spacecraft focuses on much colder objects, icy comets which live in the outer asteroid belt, also known as the Kuiper Belt.

After that flyby, Stern and his colleagues set about searching for a new target in the Kuiper Belt, which extends from the edge of Neptune's orbit out to about 5 billion miles from the sun. The name Ultima Thule was chosen through a nickname campaign hosted by the New Horizons team. "We will find out".

"We just don't have the details to see it yet", added Spencer, who is based at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado. "We'll find out soon enough".

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