New Horizons, a spacecraft that gives Pluto a distant first glance, will illuminate another world, a small ice body 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.
On New Year's Day at 12.33 ET, the spacecraft will fly in 2014 MU69, given the informal name Ultima Thule, a 30-kilometer wide object that is part of the Kuiper Belt. This region is a disk of ice objects outside Neptune's orbit.
This will be one of the furthest areas the spacecraft has ever visited.
"We are on the verge of Ultima," said Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons of the Southwest Research Institute, a non-profit organization based in Texas. "We have never seen Kuiper Belt objects up close. We don't know what their geology is, how they evolved, how they were built, even what they were made of."
The spacecraft flew past Pluto, which was once considered our ninth planet and is now considered a dwarf planet and part of the Kuiper Belt, in July 2015. Stern violently opposed the decision to reclassify Pluto.
Uncover the secret
When New Horizons flies past Pluto – a world much larger than Ultima Thule with a diameter of 2,380 km – it reveals things that were previously only theorized by planetary scientists.
Some findings include: Pluto has been geologically active in the past; has a thicker-than-expected atmosphere (and blue); and it is home to movable nitrogen glaciers and floating icebergs.
When the New Horizon drove past Ultima Thule at a speed of 14 km / s on January 1, it was only 3,500 kilometers above its surface which provided images in resolutions much higher than those taken from Pluto.
Stern hopes there will be more surprises.
"We will look for rings. We will search [moons]. We will see if it has an atmosphere, "said Stern." So much about composition and geology and how it was built. How [did] this planet building block was made 4 billion years ago. This is the most preserved example of that era, planet formation, anyone who has ever been there. "
The only other object is Pluto but, Stern noted, he has undergone geological evolution so that it is not maintained at all.
"Ultima is the first and – for now – our only chance to truly get the time capsule for the formation of planets," he said.
Getting to celestial bodies more than six billion kilometers away and only half the size of Fort McMurray is not an easy task.
"Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, so 10,000 times fainter," said Stern. "This means that it is much harder to navigate, to track and go home, with lots."
After choosing Ultima Thule from several potential candidates, the Hubble Space Telescope helped scientists track the object so they could fire a New Horizon machine and change its trajectory. Now that it's closer, they can track it with an onboard camera.
But tracking is not the only challenge: because the spacecraft are so far away, there is little light to keep the instrument warm, so they are under more pressure. Besides that, far from Earth.
"Communication time has changed from four and a half hours each way to six hours each way. It's a 12-hour round trip," Stern said. "We play a chess game where every move takes 12 hours, with a remote control with something [6.5 kilometres away] and no backup. "
Stern was very pleased with the prospect of finding another target where they could send a New Horizon after his visit to Ultima Thule.
"This mission is an unbelievable experience and great success," said Stern.
The community is invited to take part in the mission by send a message to Ultima Thule.