NASA’s unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on its historic New Year’s Day flyby target, the most distant world ever studied, a frozen relic of the solar system some four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.
The cosmic object, known as ultima Thule, is about the size of the US capital, Washington, and orbits in the dark and frigid Kuiper Belt about a billion miles on the far side the dwarf planet, Pluto.
The spacecraft’s nearest approach to this primitive space rock comes January one at 12:33 am ET (0533 GMT).
Until then, what it’s like, and what it’s made of, remain a mystery.
“This is a time capsule that’s going to take us back four and a half billion years to the birth of the solar system,” said Alan Stern, the scientist on the project at the Southwest research Institute, during a press briefing Friday.
A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is presently zooming in on ultima Thule, therefore scientists will get a better sense of its shape and configuration—whether it’s one object or several.
“We’ve never been to a kind of object like this before,” said Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest research Institute.
About a day prior, “we can begin to see what the actual form of the object is,” she said.
The spacecraft entered “encounter mode” on December twenty six, and is “very healthy,” added Stern.
Communicating with a spacecraft that’s so far away takes six hours and eight minutes each way—or about twelve hours and 15 minutes round trip.
New Horizons’ eagerly awaited “phone home” command, indicating if it survived the close pass—at a distance of just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers)—is expected January one at 10:29 am (1529 GMT).
Until then, the New Horizons spacecraft continues speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling almost 1,000,000 miles per day.
And NASA scientists are eagerly awaiting the first pictures.
“Because this is a flyby mission, we solely have one chance to get it right,” said Alice bowman, missions operations manager for new Horizons.
The spacecraft, that launched in 2006, captured stunning pictures of Pluto when it flew by the dwarf planet in 2015.