What you need to know about NASA’s New Horizons flyby
Published Monday, December 31, 2018 1:05PM EST Last Updated Monday, December 31, 2018 7:16PM EST
NASA will make history on New Year’s Day, with an exploration of the farthest object from Earth ever undertaken.
More than a billion kilometres beyond Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to meet up with a space object known as Ultima Thule, as it passes through the Kuiper belt region in the extreme outer solar system.
Here’s what you need to know about the mission as New Horizons nears its target:
What is New Horizons?
Part of NASA’s New Frontiers project, the New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006.
The craft was sent with the goal of exploring Pluto –still considered a planet at the time and the only unexplored one in the solar system.
After reaching and exploring the dwarf planet and its moon, Charon, in 2015 New Horizons took on a secondary task of exploring the Kuiper belt, which it will fulfill for the next decade.
Ultima Thule will be the first Kuiper belt object that New Horizons encounters, with several other objects planned for observation in the future.
Where is Ultima Thule?
(486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is an object discovered in the Kuiper belt by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.
Estimated to have a diameter of 30 kilometres , about the same size as Washington D.C., the object is more than 6.5 billion kilometres from earth.
There are discrepancies in what scientists believe Ultima Thule may look like, with estimates based on distance and brightness giving it an elongated shape, while light measurements are consistent with those seen from a spherical body.
Experts say Thule is a preserved relic of 4.5 billion years ago, and could give valuable insight into the materials that were present at the beginning of our solar system.
When will the spacecraft make its flyby?
The approach is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:33 a.m. eastern standard time.
The event will be covered live on NASA TV and by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
NASA won’t know if New Horizons survived the flyby for hours after its intended passing, due to the distance it will have to travel.
If all goes as planned, the first images of Ultima Thule will likely be released to the world on Tuesday.
Who is piloting it?
Canada’s Frederic Pelletier is serving as chief navigator for the spacecraft, leading a team of eight based out of Johns Hopkins.
New Horizons will fly by Ultima Thule at a distance of about 3,500 kilometres, going at a speed of 50,000 kilometres an hour.
What makes the task even more difficult is that it takes six hours for signals from Earth to reach the craft, and another six hours to return.
“When we plan manoeuvres to do uplinks and updates, we need to take that into account," Pelletier said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
With files from the Canadian Press