How to watch NASA's New Year's date with distant space rock

How to watch NASA's New Year's date with distant space rock

The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto hurtled toward a New Year's Day rendezvous with a tiny, icy world a billion miles farther out, in what would make it the most distant cosmic body ever explored by humankind.

Despite the partial USA government shutdown, sparked by a feud over funding for a border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the United States space agency would broadcast the flyby.

Ultima will soon become the most distant world humanity has ever visited.

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.

From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members calculated its reflectivity, which is only about 10%, or about as dark as garden dirt.

Real-time video of the actual flyby was impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

The New Horizons mission is operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

When New Horizons passes by, the duo will be approximately 4 billion miles from the sun.

This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at centre, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. In a press release, New Horizons said no spacecraft has explored this "place beyond the known world", which is located deep in the solar system.

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Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

"This is just raw exploration", said Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator for the mission. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". It's the furthest planetary flyby in history.

The flyby of Ultima Thule is scheduled for 12:15 a.m. ET, January 1, 2019.

According to project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, humans didn't even know the Kuiper Belt - a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system - existed until the 1990s. "If we want to know where we come from, we must study these objects", said Lori Glaze, acting director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. "We will find out".

Once it enters the peripheral layer of the belt, containing icy bodies and leftover fragments from the solar system's creation, the probe will get its first close-up glance of Ultima Thule, a cool mass shaped like a giant peanut, using seven on-board instruments.

It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 12-20 miles in size. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated. Even so, this distant object appears very reluctant to give up any secrets.

Ultima Thule is what's known as a "cold classical Kuiper belt object". Temperatures here are close to absolute zero because the region is so far from the sun.

"Everything we are going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things - are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system", Stern added.

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