NASA's New Horizons poised for New Year's Kuiper Belt flyby

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And it's happening amid a partial government shutdown that initially threw a curveball into how the New Horizons team will share the flyby with the public.

"We've been taking images of Ultima Thule ever since August from onboard the spacecraft, but it's just a dot in the distance that grows brighter and brighter and brighter".

Ultima Thule lies 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt - a cosmic doughnut of small primitive objects.

"This is a time capsule that is going to take us back four and a half billion years to the birth of the solar system", said Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the project at the Southwest Research Institute, during a press briefing Friday. New Horizons hurtles through space at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), and even something as minuscule as a grain of rice could demolish it. "We suspect that it's not going to be spherical, that it's going to have some weird shape to it".

"The primary effect has been a loss of NASA public affairs, which has made our public engagement much more challenging", Stern told Space.com in an email.

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Ultima Thule was first detected in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope, meaning the rock was only discovered after the New Horizons launch.

The New Horizons flyby is planned for January 1, 2019, and it will continue its research on the Kuiper Belt till 2021. At this time, Ultima Thule will be at a distance of nearly 6.5 billion km (4 billion miles) from the Sun, making this the most distant planetary flyby that has yet been attempted, and the first time that a Solar System body of this type has been seen close-up. It is the farthest, however - 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

The flyby of Ultima Thule is going to be quite the challenge, since the object is so small and hard to track from Earth. Ultima Thule is in the Twilight Zone's heart.

The stakes are high.

The data that will be sent back will take around six hours to reach Earth and Stern says that the images will be ready for release by January 2nd.

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"Because this is a flyby mission, we only have one chance to get it right", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons.

New Horizons passed Pluto in a historic 2015 flyby and has been traveling to Ultima Thule since then. Nicknamed Ultima Thule, the object is a small ball of ice in the distant Kuiper Belt, which is a large collection of small bodies that froze out of a disk of gas and dust early in the Solar System's history.

The scientists believe that Ultima can provide clues about the formation of dwarf planets like Pluto and also help understand how the solar system was a billion years ago. "We're gonna not rewrite a textbook about Ultima, we're gonna write it from scratch".

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. As per scientists, so far there is a lack of a light curve.

"But never before New Horizons have any of these objects been studied up close with cameras and spectrometers and any of the gear we're taking along". And we can learn its composition. Scientists aren't sure what causes that either, Singer added.

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