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NASA's Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

Pluto explorer will usher in the new year zipping past an even more distant worl

This image was made by combining hundreds images taken between August and mid-December by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This image was made by combining hundreds images taken between August and mid-December by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) soon after the stroke of midnight.

Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humankind. It is 1 billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth. No spacecraft has visited anything so primitive.

The spacecraft flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. It will zoom within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast.

It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed -- and survived -- the encounter.

Due to the government shutdown, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will be handling all the publicity related to the New Year's Day flyby instead of NASA. The laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.