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By Denise Chow and David Freeman
As night owls gather around the world to celebrate the launch of 201
The New Horizons spacecraft has been in space for 13 years and is now approaching an object in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region outside Neptune's orbit full of icy bodies and dwarfed by planets. If everything goes according to plan, the probe will fly past the Ultima Thule object at 12:33 pm Eastern Time on Tuesday, January 1st.
The flyby, broadcast live on NASA TV from 12:00 pm: At 3:00 pm EST on Tuesday, Ultima Thule is the farthest object ever visited by a spaceship.
"We are pleased to explore a type of object that has never been seen before," Alan Stern, chief investigator of the New Horizon mission, said before the flyby. "If we think about the scale and size of the exploration we are performing, and I would say people are looking forward to being close to the walls."
Ultima Thule, whose official name is 2014 MU69, is an icy, irregularly shaped bodies measure about 20 miles across. It is believed to be a remnant of the early solar system, a planetary "building block" orbiting the sun since the system was established 4.6 billion years ago.
Although flyby will pass in no time – nuclear power operation The New Horizons probe accelerates at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour – cameras and other instruments aboard a pianos sized spacecraft can photograph and map the object and its composition determine.
New Horizons aired the first footage of Ultima Thule from August when it was about 100 million miles from the object. However, against the backdrop of the crowded stars, the object looked so small and powerless that it was hard to say much about it. This will change as the spacecraft approaches – a prospect that has electrified the astronomy community.
"We know next to nothing about it – seeing a detailed surface map will be exciting," says Jay Pasachoff, a professor of astronomy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and is not involved in the New Horizons mission, NBC News MACH said in an email. "Will there be mountains? Crater Icy deposits? It is so far from the sun that we assume that its surface has never been changed. The flyby comes three and a half years after New Horizons last major milestone, a flyby of Pluto and its largest moon.
Charon, about 3 billion miles from Earth. Since leaving Pluto in July 2015, New Horizons has increased its odometer by 1 billion miles.
Stern said flying with Ultima Thule is even more difficult than flying with Pluto – and not just because the spacecraft is three years older and much older from Earth. "We'll meet with something about the size of a city, a billion miles away, in the dark," Stern said.
What exactly does Star of Ultima Thule expect? He does not say.
"We have been very careful not to make any predictions because we have never seen anything like this," he said of the object. "Pluto surprised us with his activity and complexity. Pluto is the size of the United States. Now imagine, [Ultima] has the size of a big city in the United States. This is really our first and only opportunity to see what these things are.
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NBC NEWS MAKE A MOVE ON TWITTER FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM] Denise Chow is a reporter and editor for NBC News MACH.