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NASA's close encounter with a mysterious space object will make history on New Year's Day



While the east coast revelers are celebrating the arrival of a new year, scientists will cross another type of border – 4 billion miles from the sun.

In early January, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to be a close encounter with the farthest planetary object man has ever studied.

The space probe, which was zipped by Jupiter in 2007 and Pluto in 2015, is now making its way towards the 2014 MU69 – a mysterious piece of rock and ice in an almost unexplored space region.

The object nicknamed Ultima Thule ̵

1; "farthest" in Latin, combined with the name of the ancient Greeks for the northernmost place in the world. The New Horizons mission team said the nickname refers to "a place beyond the known world." About the size of New York City, Ultima Thule orbits the sun once every 297 years, according to National Geographic.

<img class = "image__src" src = "https://img.huffingtonpost.com/asset/5c254d831f00002f0926b749.jpeg?cache=ait8uyw34s&ops=scalefit_720_noupscale" alt = "New Horizons probe and the celestial body approaching rapidly , Ultima Thule, provided by the NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
A reproduction of the New Horizons probe and celestial body, Ultima Thule, provided by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

But the location of Ultima Thule makes it interesting for scientists. The object is located 1 billion miles behind Pluto in the Kuiper Belt. This region extends around the sun and houses millions of icy bodies. Scientists believe that these bodies were left over 4.5 billion years ago from the formation of the solar system and have remained largely unchanged ever since.

"It's the oldest solar system relic we've ever studied," New Horizons team member Marc Buie told National Geographic.

Alan Stern, NASA's chief investigator, said in a live Facebook video that scientists think I'm sure what you can expect from Ultima Thule. "When we fly past Ultima, we have a chance to see what things were like in the beginning," he said. "It is completely unknown and unexplored."

New Horizons launched into space in January 2006. Four years ago, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to locate Kuiper Belt objects within range of the spacecraft and settled on Ultima Thule.

New Horizons is hurled through space at 31,500 miles per hour (more than eight miles per second) to reach the object. As you pass Ultima Thule, hundreds of photographs and other measurements are needed to gather more information about the celestial body. The team hopes to map the surface of the object, find its temperature, and see if it has an atmosphere, moons, or rings.

According to a timeline released by the New Horizons team, the spaceship will fly past Ultima Thule at 12:33 pm I'm on Eastern Time on January 1st. The distance to the next body is less than a third of the distance from Pluto. The distance from New Horizons space probe is provided by the Johns Hopkins Laboratory of Applied Physics


NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

A representation of the New Horizons probe's path through space provided by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

However, there is still some uncertainty. The images of New Horizons may be blurry when Ultima Thule rotates fast, reports National Geographic. And there is also a chance that the spacecraft's camera will miss it altogether.

"We could get it, and maybe not," Stern said on Facebook Live. "And if we understand it, it will be spectacular."

The New Horizons team counts Ultima Thule's next approach to the probe on New Year's Day. Some results of the encounter will be shared over the next few days, but it will take until 2020 for the spacecraft to send all the encounter data back to Earth.

New Horizons media spokesman Michael Buckley told HuffPost that the partial closure of the government on Saturday will have no bearing on the project's mission or scientific operation.

Reporting will be broadcast on the lab's YouTube channel and on the New Horizons mission website.


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