An artist's conception of New Horizons.
Photo: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Photo: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons spacecraft getting ready for historic flyby of distant, icy world

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is getting ready to make history on New Year’s Day in the farthest reaches of the solar system in the distant Kuiper Belt.

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The probe will make a flyby of an icy object named 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule, which is orbiting in the heart of the Kuiper Belt far beyond Neptune, 4 billion miles from the sun and 1 billion miles from Pluto.

It’s the farthest planetary flyby in human history, according to NASA. 

“New Horizons will map Ultima, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere,” New Horizons’ principal investigator, Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, said in a press release

“It will make other studies, too, such as measuring Ultima’s temperature and perhaps even its mass,” Stern said.

“In the space of one 72-hour period, Ultima will be transformed from a pinpoint of light – a dot in the distance – to a fully explored world. It should be breathtaking!”

Ultima is the most primordial object ever explored, deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin said. “I’m excited to see the surface features of this small world, particularly the craters on the surface.”

The number of craters could help scientists determine the number of small objects in the outer solar system.

New Horizons, which launched on Jan. 19, 2006, is the same craft that sent back amazing photos in 2015 from humanity’s first-ever visit to Pluto.

>> Related: NASA’s Mars InSight lander just days away from arrival on Red Planet

The goal of the New Horizons mission, according to NASA, is to answer questions about Pluto, its moons and Kuiper Belt objects.

The mission has made multiple discoveries so far, including mountains, moons and flowing ice on Pluto.

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