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NASA New Horizons to photograph Ultima Thule on a historic historic New Year trip


An artist's impression on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft that met Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), a Kuiper Belt object that orbits a billion miles outside Pluto, on January 1, 2019.

NASA's Applied Physics Laboratory / Johns Hopkins University / Southwest Research Institute / Steve Gribben

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will explore a world farther than before when flying past 2014 MU69 in the early hours of New Year's Day.

The aircraft gradually approached the past two weeks when NASA scientists conducted a series of track checks and corrections to ensure New Horizons was on the right track to gather as much information as possible about mysterious objects – nicknamed Ultima Thule – without crashing into debris that might hide outside the reach of our solar system.

"This last day is probably the most intense for us," Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at APL, told CNET's sister website, CBS News. "We have these optical navigation measurements down closer together, that means a lot of teams stay up all night."

He also said the spacecraft would travel 19 miles from its destination. That's about 2,200 miles from the object.

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On December 15, 12 researchers who formed the New Horizons hazard watch team confirmed that the approach approach was safe using the New Horizons telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) telescope. If they has been find the moon or ring near Ultima, NASA will choose a secondary flight path, with New Horizons correcting and flying past objects from a much larger distance.

As New Horizons approaches, Ultima Thule becomes brighter and brighter. Soon, the spacecraft will fly past mysterious objects at a distance of 2,200 miles from its surface.

NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Laboratory / Henry Throop

"The team is in full consensus that the spacecraft must remain on a closer track, and the mission leadership adopted our recommendations," said Mark Showalter, the danger team leader.

As it stands, New Horizons will fly with Ultima Thule from a distance of 3,500 kilometers (about 2,200 miles) – the optimal path. To put it in perspective, remember epic photographs of Pluto? New Horizons cameras photographed them while flying 12,500 kilometers (about 7,800 miles) from the surface of a far-flung planet.

As such, the New Horizon will come three times closer to Ultima Thule than Pluto and give NASA researchers valuable images and science data from a world that is practically unknown to us.

On December 26, New Horizons entered the Encounter Mode, a type of "safe mode" that ensured the purpose of mission science would be carried out even if the spacecraft was not functioning. Under normal circumstances, the damage sees New Horizons call home for help, but because it currently takes 12 hours to do, it is risky to do so when the spacecraft is in a close approach.

Practically, entering Encounter Mode means the spaceship itself now. With thousands of instructions loaded on his computer, he has begun his delicate dance, 1 billion miles past Pluto.

Two days before we left New Horizons on its own device, the photo took the highest resolution image of the far "worldlet": the thick darkness beneath it showed Ultima Thule at its center, 10 million kilometers (about 6.3 million miles) away.


New Horizons sees Ultima Thule (circled) in high-resolution images taken by LORRI on December 24.

NASA / Johns Hopkins / Southwest Research Institute Applied Physics Laboratory

Within a week, the tiny light pixels in the distance will become a known world. We will see what it is like, what it is made of, how cold, the mass and whether it has its own moon.

New Horizons will really ring in the New Year by flying through the farthest world we've ever explored, with the closest approach going to 12:33 ET on January 1. Even though the US is currently in the midst of an ongoing federal government shutdown, you can still catch reactions and simulations directly from flyby on the New Horizons mission website. Data and images from flyby are expected later on New Year's Day, moments after 11:30 ET.

After one year of extraordinary news, New Horizons is expected to put 2019 on the correct flyway too, so I suggest you hit the interstellar soundtrack on New Year's Eve, settle down and admire the new world we will find.

First published December 26, 4:23 a.m. PT
Update, December 27, 6:35 p.m. PT: Add that New Horizons has entered Encounter Mode and is on track for its historic crossroads.
Update, December 31, 8:55 am PT: Add comments from APL's mission operations manager.

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