After the Pluto reconnaissance mission was concluded, NASA authorized New Horizons to take on an extended mission to study Ultima Thule, which was identified using Hubble Space Telescope imagery during the probe's cruise toward Pluto.
"New Horizons will map Ultima Thule, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere", said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, also of Southwest Research Institute.
For that reason, Stern said he and his colleagues were "on pins and needles to see how this turns out".
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is about to make history again, as it is now on course for an encounter with Ultima Thule, which will soon be the farthest explored object in our solar system!
This artist's impression of Ultima Thule depicts it as a contact binary, two smaller objects that orbit each other and are so close that they touch.
The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises.
"Ultima Thule means "beyond Thule" - beyond the borders of the known world - symbolizing the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never before done", the USA space agency said in a statement.
At 11:30 a.m., scientists involved with the New Horizons mission will describe the images and data returned by the spacecraft.
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While the mission marks the farthest close-encounter of an object within our solar system, NASA's Voyager 1 and 2, a pair of deep space probes launched in 1977, have reached greater distances on a mission to survey extrasolar bodies.
Its destination, Ultima Thule, "is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", he added, recalling that December 1968 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when US astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8.
"Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region", John Spencer, deputy project scientist for New Horizons, told reporters on Monday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. On the eve of its historic flyby, the spacecraft has sent home an image that confirms its distant target, Ultima Thule, has an elongated shape.
'In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago'.
From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members calculated its reflectivity, which is only about 10%, or about as dark as garden dirt. The flyby Ultima Thule can be watched on NASA TV YouTube channel, where there'll be a discussion about the flyby and the live stream of the signal captured by NASA.
The almost circular orbit of Ultima Thule indicates it originated at its current distance from the Sun.
Come back for more updates during tonight's New Years flyby, and in the days following, as the New Horizons shares more of what they discover from this distant encounter!
"Who knows what we might find?".