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

The vessel's flyby of Ultima Thule -- about 1 billion miles past Pluto -- will be the farthest planetary flyby in human history.

By Tauren Dyson
NASA's New Horizons poised for New Year's Kuiper Belt flyby
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured an extended color image of Pluto during a flyby in July 2015. On New Year's Day 2019, the spacecraft is expected to be the first human vessel to do a flyby of an object in the Kuiper Belt. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Dec. 26 (UPI) -- NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is making its final approach to the Kuiper Belt, with plans to perform a historic flyby of Ultima Thule on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day -- the farthest planetary flyby in human history.

"Our team feels like we have been riding along with the spacecraft, as if we were mariners perched on the crow's nest of a ship, looking out for dangers ahead," Mark Showalter, a researcher at the SETI Institute, said in a news release. "The team was in complete consensus that the spacecraft should remain on the closer trajectory, and mission leadership adopted our recommendation."

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New Horizons first launched in 2006 with the goal of doing a flyby study of the Pluto system by 2015. It captured its last data of the planet in 2016 and began making its way toward the Kuiper Belt to capture more flyby data.

The crew estimates that New Horizons will reach the Ultima Thule, which sits a billion miles beyond Pluto, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan.1.

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The 12-member New Horizons hazard watch crew has used the vessel's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, telescope camera to search for dangerous objects near Ultima Thule.

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New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern gave the final sign off for New Horizons to keep pushing toward Kuiper Belt on Dec. 18.

On Dec. 20, NASA published images from LORRI on its Pluto New Horizons blog showing Ultima Thule growing brighter.

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"The spacecraft is now targeted for the optimal flyby, over three times closer than we flew to Pluto," Stern added. "Ultima, here we come!"

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