New Horizons to return images of Ultima Thule flyby

New Horizons probe closes in on remote body Ultima Thule

NASA probe close to the edge of the Solar system (VIDEO)

Now six decades later, the guitar legend turned astrophysicist has released an arena rock song composed for both the farthest away object humanity has ever visited - Ultima Thule - and the spacecraft sent to scour this distant world, NASA's New Horizons probe.

Hal Weaver, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and a project scientist on the New Horizons mission, said: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity".

A NASA spacecraft opens the new year at the most distant world ever explored, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

From New Horizons' location, a radio transmission traveling at light speed requires just over six hours to reach Earth.

At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, scientists will count down to the moment of New Horizons' closest approach, at 12:33 a.m.

Based on these two factors, this object could be a pristine piece of the early solar system, which formed at its current location, and thus was not tossed around by the gravity of the other planets (looking at YOU, Neptune), and has possibly gone completely (or almost completely) untouched for over 4.5 billion years.

Ultima Thule exists in a profoundly frigid zone of the solar system where temperatures are near absolute zero - which is as cold as it gets (minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit).

"Prior to the flypast, Mr Stern had said: "[Ultima Thule] is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation.

The spaceship will be just 2,200 miles from the asteroid, which is impressive considering it was spotted from 4.03 billion kilometres away by the Kepler Telescope.

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The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

Seven instruments on board will record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition.

Stern said the goal was to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto.

After a 13-year journey, the piano-sized spacecraft has covered a distance of four billion miles to reach Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt - a donut-shaped region of ancient, rocky bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

The encounter comes almost 50 years after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon in July 1969. "We will find out".

JJ Kavelaars, a science team member and astronomer with the National Research Council in Canada, said New Horizons has now verified that the object is spinning, but it's not yet clear at what speed.

"As you celebrate New Year's Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the unbelievable things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it", Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday. "Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team".

Both probes are still operational.

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