US Space Agency NASA is all set to welcome the New Year with a date with a distant space rock called 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which made history in 2015 when it finished a nine-year journey that took it all the way to Pluto, thus becoming the first human-made object to encounter the dwarf planet.
On January 1, at around 12:33 am 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.
Ultima Thule is so dim and so distant that scientists aren't even certain what it looks like. Some of their only information about its size and shape comes from a series of coordinated observations last summer, when astronomers measured the shadow it cast as it passed in front of a star.
But New Horizons will finally fly by its target just after midnight on Jan. 1, taking close-up photographs and sophisticated scientific measurements of what it sees. By the time the first images and data stream back to Earth, the borders of the known world will have expand once more.
The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby. Whereas Pluto is roughly the size of the United States, Ultima could fit atop Washington, DC This means New Horizons has to get much closer to the little space rock to examine it, and the encounter will be over much more quickly.
Twenty-four hours before closest approach, Ultima Thule still takes up only two pixels in images taken by New Horizons' camera screen. As New Horizons speeds through space at 9 miles per second, it will take less than a day to turn Ultima Thule back into a speck in the rear view mirror.
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.