NASA’s New Horizons Set to Make Historic New Year’s Day Flyby

The NASA spacecraft is expected to gather information about one of our solar system’s most mysterious bodies.

While millions around the world dream up their 2019 goals, NASA will celebrate a goal of its own. Its New Horizons vessel will fly past the most distant solar system object ever explored.

The New Horizons craft will fly by Ultima Thule at a predicted time of 12:33 am EST (0533 GMT) on Tuesday, January 1. 

This marks the second historic flyby conducted by New Horizons, but it's definitely the one NASA and its principle researchers seem the most excited for.

"We've never in the history of spaceflight gone to a target that we've known less about," Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons and a researcher at the Southwest Research Center in Colorado, told reporters Sunday (Dec. 30).

"We are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule," Stern said.

What is Ultima Thule?

At its basics, Ultima Thule is the tiny rock some 4 billion miles from the sun. One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Ultima Thule is whether or not it's made up of one object or two very close together. 

Ultima Thule was first spotted in 2014, despite New Horizons being launched in 2006. It was originally named 2014 MU69, and Ultima Thule quickly became one of NASA's three objects for an extended mission target. In 2015, NASA formally selected the body as a target for New Horizons. Two years later, researchers discovered that the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) wasn't actually spherical, which further intrigued NASA.

New Horizons has crept closer to Ultima Thule over the last three months and began sending back hundreds of photos about the area. 

Currently, there are no major hindrances between Ultima Thule and New Horizon. However, there are little researchers could do at this point to affect the trajectory of the spacecraft. December 13 was the last day for researchers to make the call to take New Horizons higher or lower, and according to Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in an interview with Space.com, it takes months to plan a new route.

Engineers sent New Horizon's its final command on December 30 at 9 a.m. EST to redirect the images. The team expects New Horizons to fly 2,200 miles (3,500 km) above the KBO surface. That's three times closer than New Horizons's encounter with Pluto. 

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How to watch new Horizons Flyby

There are several ways to track this exciting New Horizons event. NASA will monitor the event on Twitter using the hashtag #UltimaThule.

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At 12:15 am EST is when NASA will have its livestream of Ultima Thule, but it won’t get a signal about the flyby until 9:45 a.m. There will be a press conference following the event at 11:30 a.m.

Each event will be streamed on the NASA Live channel on YouTube. Oh, and keep a special eye out for astrophysicist and Queen band member Brian May, who serves as a mission team member on New Horizons. He'll be debuting his new song "New Horizons" during the event.

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