New Horizons will welcome the New Year with a flyby to Ultima Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt that orbits far beyond Pluto.
NASA announced that, on Jan. 1, 2019, the spacecraft will be approaching object 2014 MU69, making it the most primitive and most distant object visited thus far.
New Mission For The New Year
New Horizons was launched by NASA in January 2006 and was able to complete its mission, which is to fly closely by Pluto, in July 2015. From its brief encounter with the dwarf planet, it was able to take photos and reveal new details about Pluto — including its heart-shaped feature — and its moon Charon.
Next stop: Ultima Thule.
"Our flyby of MU69 on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day 2019 will be an exciting sequel to the historic exploration New Horizons performed at Pluto in 2015," said Alan Stern, the principal investigator to the project.
The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region beyond Neptune where comets and icy worlds much smaller than Earth orbit around the Sun. Scientists estimate that there might be hundreds of thousands of icy worlds and over a trillion of comets in the region.
Both Pluto and Ultima Thule are located within the Kuiper Belt so it would not be a long journey for the spacecraft. However, a few days ago, New Horizons carried out a trajectory correction maneuver — the farthest course-correction ever performed by a spacecraft. The maneuver also bumped the speed of the spacecraft to about 4.6 miles per hour. It is expected to fly by Ultima Thule at around 12:33 a.m. EST.
Currently, New Horizons is about 3.95 billion miles away from Earth. It will be the first-ever spacecraft to explore this region of the Solar System which has first been discovered a few decades ago.
What Scientists Expect To Find Out
Little is known about Ultima Thule. Everything that scientists know so far about the object is from images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
A comprehensive observation campaign from summer of 2017 revealed that Ultima Thule might actually be two objects and accompanied by a moon.
"That tells us this object is going to have a lot of surprises in store for New Horizons," stated New Horizons science team member Marc Buie. "We're going to see something that dates back to the formation of the solar system."