NASA image of Ultima Thule

NASA’s epic New Horizons mission headed to most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft

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Oct 26, 2018, 8:35 PM EDT

New Horizons will soon be going far out—as in further out than even Pluto.

On New Year’s Day, the spacecraft will make an unprecedented flyby of the mysterious Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69, unofficially called Ultima Thule, which is Latin for “beyond the farthest frontiers.” Beyond any other cosmic object ever explored by a probe, it lies 40 times farther from the sun than our planet, and will also be the first object this deep within the Kuiper Belt to be studied.

This is obviously not just another space rock.

New Horizons may only get a glimpse of this frozen world on the first day of 2019, but eyeing Ultima Thule even briefly as the probe hurtles through space at 20,000 mph could reveal things that impress even NASA. This is any Earthling’s first closeup that could tell us what makes Kuiper Belt objects like Ultima a rusty dark red (no, it’s not the blood of anyone’s enemies).

Because there are remnants of the Big Bang all over the Kuiper Belt, another thing this alien object could shed light on is what went into building Earth and the rest of the solar system. That isn’t even everything that Ultima Thule could tell us. It may be dark from eons of getting blasted by cosmic radiation, but is strangely brighter than it should be. What this could mean remains unknown.

To find out as much as it possibly can, New Horizons will use its seven hypersensitive instruments, which may find signs of comet collisions and hints about Ultima’s composition that may trace back to the birth of the universe. The surrounding environment will be studied by plasma and dust sensors. Night temperatures could indicate how heat passes through the icy surface.

Images taken by New Horizons' hi-res camera will be beamed back to Earth. While the spacecraft will transmit 50 gigabytes of data back to our planet, that will happen at about 1,000 bits per second, or about the speed of your average dial-up connection for any of us who remember the agony of those. No one at mission control will be able to breathe for 12 hours, because that is how long it will take to receive the initial signal that will let everyone back on Earth know New Horizons survived this treacherous journey. You do have to remember that Ultima Thule is 4 billion miles away.

Watch for observations about Ultima to be made around late November to early December. By December 16, the New Horizons team will determine whether the surrounding environment is safe enough to make a close flyby at a distance of 2,175 miles. Moons or other objects could push the probe further.

Just getting somewhat close to Ultima would be a breakthrough, but you know you’re waiting in anticipation of the ultimate flyby.