On New Year's Day, New Horizons will meet Ultima Thule

Posted Dec 30, 2018 by Karen Graham
After a journey of almost 13 years and more than 6.5 billion kilometers (4.04 million miles), NASA's New Horizons is about to meet a tiny, mysterious space rock called 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule.
Artist s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69  a Kuiper Belt object...
Artist's impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, on Jan. 1, 2019.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben
The little piano-sized spacecraft made history in 2015 when it finished a nine-year journey that took it all the way to Pluto, becoming the first human-made object to encounter the dwarf planet.
But, New Horizon's journey was to continue. After getting stunning images of Pluto, the spacecraft continued hurtling through space at well over 30,000 miles per hour toward the outer reaches of the solar system’s Kuiper belt.
NASA s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14...
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
A meeting with Ultima Thule on New Years Day
On January 1, at around 12:33 a.m. Eastern Time, New Horizons will get to within 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) of 2014 MU69—which sounds like quite a distance, but is actually three times closer than New Horizons was from Pluto during its 2015 flyby.
“The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to yield new knowledge,” Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, wrote in a blog post. “Being the most distant exploration of anything in history, it’s also going to be historic.”
Timeline of New Horizons journey
Timeline of New Horizons journey
Ultima Thule is special for two reasons, writes Stern. First, 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule was formed way out in the middle of the Kuiper Belt some 4 billion miles away, where the temperature is close to absolute zero.
Second, writes Stern, "Because of where it was formed and the fact that Ultima is not large enough to have a geologic engine like Pluto and larger planets, we expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored."
This means that Ultima Thule should give scientists some valuable information into the early processes of a planet's formation, as well as what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago. "What will Ultima reveal? No one knows. To me, that is what’s most exciting—this is pure exploration and fundamental science," Stern writes.
A blob in the viewfinder: Ultima viewed from New Horizons on 24 December.
A blob in the viewfinder: Ultima viewed from New Horizons on 24 December.
What is known about 2014 MU69
Using the Hubble telescope, on June 26, 2014, the science team discovered an object that New Horizons could reach with its available fuel. The object was subsequently designated 2014 MU69, given the minor planet number 485968. Based on public votes, the object was nicknamed "Ultima Thule", which means "beyond the known world."
Actually, we know very little about Ultima Thule. There have been three separate attempts in July and August 2017 to study the object using telescopes, Scientists did learn that Thule is about 20 miles in diameter (100 times smaller than Pluto), and likely has a two-lobed shape. It may actually be two rocks traveling very close together.
An artist s impression of 2014 MU69  which might actually be two rocks moving in tandem.
An artist's impression of 2014 MU69, which might actually be two rocks moving in tandem.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Steve Gribben
Ultima Thule takes 295 years to orbit the sun, and it emits a red hue. Ultima is surrounded by millions of cold fragments scientists believe originated with the birth of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt is too far away, and way too cold to encourage the formation of any planets, leaving all its fragments frozen in time for billions of years.
We will only know what Ultima Thule's surface looks like once New Horizons has sent back the first pictures after it has flown by, although based on observations of similar-sized Solar System objects, it will almost certainly display impact craters And this is what is really exciting - We will get a chance to study the earliest history of the solar system and its planets.
Thule fly-by New Years Eve Party
Even though the actual fly-by of Ultima Thule will occur a bit after midnight, on January 1, there will be a New Year’s Eve party at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The party will be broadcast on APL's YouTube channel and on the APL Facebook page. (The flyby activities are also scheduled to be broadcast on NASA TV, despite the federal government shutdown).
The broadcast will start with scientific lectures at 8 p.m. The countdown to the flyby starts just into the new year at 12:15 a.m. on January 1. However, NASA won’t get confirmation from New Horizons that all went well right away. MU69 is so far away that it will take six hours for a signal to go from the spacecraft to Earth.
this means that by the time everyone wakes up later on New Year's Day, we should know that New Horizons is safe and have the very first close-up images of Ultima Thule.