NASA To Ring In The New Year With New Horizons' Epic Flyby Of Ultima Thule

Alexandra Lozovschi

On January 1, 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make its most exciting flyby of its 12-year career — a close encounter with Ultima Thule, a small icy body lurking at the edge of the solar system.

Named after a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature, this frozen world was originally called 2014 MU69 and is one of the most mysterious residents of the Kuiper Belt. Floating some 3.8 billion miles away from Earth, Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) is the most distant celestial object to ever be visited by a man-made spacecraft.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, not much is known about the enigmatic destination of the New Horizons spacecraft. Discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope, Ultima Thule was initially believed to be somewhat spherical in shape. It was only three years later that scientists figured out that this peculiar object was actually elongated and stood a good chance of being a binary asteroid — made up of two space rocks orbiting each other.

In late August, New Horizons unveiled to the world the first-ever snapshot of Ultima Thule, captured from a distance of 107 million miles away, as reported by the Inquisitr at the time. Come January 1, the intrepid spacecraft — which in 2015 led humanity on our first exploration of Pluto — will zip past this intriguing object at 32,000 miles per hour, coming in as close as 2,200 miles from Ultima Thule.

That's more than three times closer than New Horizons' historic flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, notes

With about four days to go until New Horizons' epic encounter with Ultima Thule, NASA has already released the schedule of live-streamed events that will keep you up to speed with this glorious space mission.

Next week kickstarts a four-day extravaganza of New Horizons news and briefings, starting with three live-streamed events on Monday, December 31. Bright and early on the next day, NASA will ring in the new year with the memorable New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule, scheduled to take place at 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year's Day.

"As you can see, anyone who is staying up for the big ball to drop and kick off the new year on the East Coast will only have to wait a little while to catch live coverage of the New Horizons spacecraft's close approach to Ultima Thule," notes BGR.

Although the spacecraft's close approach to its flyby target happens just half an hour after midnight, New Horizons' signal acquisition from Ultima Thule won't be broadcast until 9:45 a.m. EST, with the first photos from the flyby expected around noon.

"NASA will provide simulations of the flyby happening in real-time, but since a live feed from the spacecraft just isn't possible, we'll have to wait a little while to see the actual images the probe captures," explains BGR.

As the New Horizons spacecraft prepares for its close approach to Ultima Thule, the mission's rock anthem will debut at 12:02 a.m. EST on the day of the highly anticipated flyby. Titled "New Horizons," the instrumental piece was written by Queen legend Brian May together with English songwriter Don Black and features the voice of late scientist Stephen Hawking, the Inquisitr recently reported.

Described as a "relic" from the early days of the solar system, Ultima Thule is estimated to be somewhere between 15 miles and 28 miles wide, notes BGR. This makes it around 100 times smaller than Pluto, which measures almost 1,500 miles in diameter.

"Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, but its scientific value is incalculable," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, explained in a NASA blog post.

"From everything we know, it was formed 4.5 or 4.6 billion years ago, 4 billion miles from the sun. It's been stored at that enormous distance from the sun, at a temperature of nearly absolute zero, ever since, so it likely represents the best sample of the ancient solar nebula ever studied. Nothing like it has ever been explored."