Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

An artist's conception of New Horizon's approaching Ultima Thule

NASA's unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on its historic New Year's flyby target, the most distant world ever studied, a frozen relic of the solar system some 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.

Generally speaking, KBOs are thought to be primarily icy bodies that formed at the same time as the solar system.

The flyby is expected to happen at 12:33 a.m. ET on January 1.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. Ultima Thule is even more cryptic than Pluto.

New Horizons travels through deep space at 30,000 miles per hour and covers almost a million miles a day, which makes the interception and timing of photos of a space object a wee bit trickier than timing New Year's Eve ball drop. It's located in the Kuiper Belt, the outermost region of the solar system beyond Neptune.

What has made the task even more challenging for the Quebec City native is the fact that it takes six hours for the signal from Earth to reach the spacecraft and another six hours to return.

The robotic spacecraft called New Horizons has been travelling through space for the last 13 years.

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Scientists are looking forward to their first up close glimpse at a Kuiper Belt object and already have some mysteries to unravel.

The success at Pluto and the spacecraft's continuing good health, plus the identification in 2014 of a KBO along its route, won approval for the extended mission that will reach its climax on Tuesday. Scientists know very little about Kuiper Belt objects, making the flyby a landmark moment. However, because New Horizons is going to be moving so fast as it passes the rock - around 32,000 miles per hour - it won't have long to make its observations. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. As per different scientific reports, Ultima Thule is about 19 miles in diameter! It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

"Out there, the Sun is only about as bright as a full moon on Earth, so Ultima is only very, very faintly lit", New Horizons Principle Investigator Alan Stern wrote in his final report ahead of the flyby. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement".

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. Scientists are interested in the belt because it is filled with comets, asteroids, and other minor planets that can tell us about the formation of the solar system, Stern said.

"We've never been to a type of object like this before", said Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

With the inelegant official name of "2014 MU69", Ultima Thule was first discovered in 2014 by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope. Those is circular orbits like Ultima Thule have remained there throughout the solar system's 4.5 billion year history in temperatures close to absolute zero. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States.

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