An artist’s impression of Ultima Thule and NASA’s New Horizons probe. Image: NASA
NASA’s New Horizons probe is on course and dutifully executing its encounter sequence software as it races toward an action-packed New Year’s Day flyby of Ultima Thule, the most distant solar system body ever targeted for up-close observations.
Three years and 1.6 billion kilometres (1 billion miles) past Pluto, New Horizons will streak past Ultima Thule, officially known as 2014 MU69, at 5:33 UTC on 1 January, passing within about 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles) of its as-yet-unseen surface at a velocity of 51,000 kilometres per hour (32,000 mph).
Four hours later, the nuclear-powered spacecraft will will turn back toward Earth and send a status report to waiting scientists and engineers gathered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore, Maryland. A few hours after than, the first high-priority images and other data will begin the 6.6-billion-kilometre (4.1-billion-mile) trip back to Earth, taking six hours and eight minutes to cross the gulf.
The first high-resolution images are expected to be released during a briefing at the Applied Physics Lab on 2 January.
“Across the whole team, people are ready, they’re in the game, we can’t wait to ...