An artist's illustration shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. Now, it is heading towards the edge of the solar system and will shortly reach Ultima Thule, where it will complete a historic flyby.
Scientists say there are two possibilities for this: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.
New Horizons left Earth in January 2006; it was the first mission created to explore the most distant part of the solar system.
The celebration occurred in the midst of a partial government shutdown, which closed much of NASA's public outreach for the Ultima Thule flyby. For more updates, follow NASA New Horizons' Twitter account here.
The spacecraft is scheduled to pass within 2,200 miles of the large asteroid at 12:33 a.m. EST Tuesday, not long after the ball drops in Time Squares.
The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto hurtled toward a New Year's Day rendezvous with a tiny, icy world a billion miles farther out, in what would make it the most distant cosmic body ever explored by humankind.
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"Even though it's a pixelated blob still, it's a better pixelated blob", New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver said Tuesday at mission headquarters, located at Maryland's Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. But we won't know for sure that the spacecraft survived until the first data from closest approach streams back tomorrow morning.
After discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope, a series of ground observations were carried out to measure Ultima Thule during an occultation-as it passed in front of a background star and blocked out some of the starlight.
New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of January 1 - 12:33 a.m. EST.
As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another fantastic first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.
Dr Brian May is officially part of the New Horizons team, and drew quite a crowd to his briefing. This was the farthest object that any craft has ever visited. Many have likely remained the same since the dawn of the solar system, making them essentially time capsules for astronomers. The mission team expects the data to be returned over the next 20 months, with an additional year of data analysis and archiving.
New Horizons launched almost 13 years ago as part of NASA's New Frontiers program with the foremost mission of conducting a flyby of Pluto, which occurred in 2015. Although not the official name for MU69, the title Ultima Thule was selected from an online naming contest that translates to "beyond the known world".
"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft that will continue after we're long gone here on Earth", she said. "What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space".