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NASA's spacecraft glides to the furthest world ever photographed

A NASA spacecraft glides in the farthest direction, and is quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever photographed by mankind, a small, distant world called Ultima Thule about four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.

The US space agency will ring in the New Year with an online live broadcast to mark the historic flight of mysterious objects in the dark and cold space known as the Kuiper Belt on January 1 at 4.30 pm AEDT (0533 GMT).

The national anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May – who also holds an advanced degree in the field of astrophysics – will be released shortly after midnight to accompany the flyby video simulation, when NASA commentators describe shortcuts at www.nasa.gov/nasalive.

Real-time video from flyby is actually not possible, because it took more than six hours for signals sent from Earth to reach the spacecraft, called New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

But if everything goes well, the first picture must be at the end of New Year's Day.

And judging by the latest tweet from Alan Stern, the main scientist on the New Horizons mission, the excitement among team members was felt.

"IT HAPPENED !! Flyby is on us! @NewHorizons2015 is healthy and of course! The farthest exploration of the world in history!" he wrote on Saturday.

What is the shape like?

Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) is – whether it is round or oval or even if it is a single object or group.

It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 20-20 miles (20-30 kilometers) in size.

Scientists decided to study it with New Horizons after the spacecraft, launched in 2006, completed its main mission to fly with Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken from the dwarf planet.

"In the closest approach we will try to imagine Ultima three times the resolution we have for Pluto," said Stern.

"If we can achieve that it will be spectacular."

By rushing across space at a speed of 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, the spacecraft aims to approach its closest distance of 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from the surface of Ultima Thule.

Flying will be fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second.

Seven instruments on the board will record high-resolution images and collect data about their size and composition.

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical island and far north in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.

"Ultima Thule means & # 39; outside of Thule & # 39; – outside the known world border – symbolizes the exploration of the Kuiper Belt and the far Kuiper Belt object that New Horizons has done, something that has never been done before," said the US space agency in statement.

According to project scientist Hal Weaver from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, mankind doesn't even know the Kuiper Belt – a large ring of relics from the time of the formation of the solar system – existed until the 1990s.

"This is the border of planetary science," Weaver said.

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"We have finally reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have existed from the start and have hardly changed – we thought. We will find out."

Although the US government was partially closed, triggered by a dispute over funding for the border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the US space agency would broadcast flyby.

Usually, NASA TV and NASA's website will go dark during the government closure.

NASA will also provide updates about another spacecraft, called OSIRIS-REx, which will enter orbit around the Bennu asteroid on New Year's Eve, said Bridenstine.

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