NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

A mock-up of the Chang'e-4 lunar lander

A mock-up of the Chang'e-4 lunar lander

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is ready to meet Ultima Thule on New Year's Day. Eastern, then reconvene 10 hours later to watch first signals from the flyby stream onto their screens.

The spaceship will be just 2,200 miles from the asteroid, which is impressive considering it was spotted from 4.03 billion kilometres away by the Kepler Telescope.

At the moment, Ultima Thule is little more than a pixel of light on New Horizon's imaging instruments.

Today's 15-minute "Phone Home" transmission was created to let the mission team at APL know that the spacecraft was healthy and successfully recorded readings from its cameras and other scientific instruments.

A thousand cheering scientists and families awaited confirmation at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, that the spacecraft survived and recorded data. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons".

This composite image shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

NASA's live stream of the event was very informative, providing details about the mission and animations to show where the spacecraft was in relation to Ultima Thule.

It reached the remote, icy world of Ultima Thule, further than Pluto and some four billion miles from Earth.




"As you celebrate New Year's Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the awesome things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it", Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday.

New Horizons examined Pluto when it flew past the dwarf-planet three years ago.

Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.

"There's nothing more exciting in the world of exploration than going to a place about which we know nothing", May said.

"We've never, in the history of spaceflight, gone to a target that we know less about", Stern added.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.

NASA's New Horizons probe has flown past Ultima Thule - a ball of dust and ice that's 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth. Altogether, it will take almost two years for all of New Horizons' data to reach Earth. Alice Bowman, the mission operation manager for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, had just announced that the spacecraft had successfully rendezvoused with MU69, a tiny, frigid object on the edge of the solar system, far beyond Pluto.

But eventually the science team expects to get detailed pictures - plus temperature readings, spectral analyses and particle counts - from a world that's thought to rank among the most primitive types of objects in the solar system. "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt". "We'll find out Tuesday".

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