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How to follow NASA's most daring, distant flyby yet of a Kuiper Belt Object

New Horizons spacecraft set for furthest robotic flyby ever on Jan. 1

A rendering of Ultima Thule. The object is located in the Kuiper belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. (Image: NASA/ JHUAPL)
A rendering of Ultima Thule. The object is located in the Kuiper belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. (Image: NASA/ JHUAPL)

Almost four years after it's historic Pluto flyby, NASA's spacecraft, New Horizons, is hurtling toward the farthest object humans have ever explored for a New Year's Day flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object, known as Ultima Thule.

According to NASA, Ultima Thule (Too-ly) will be the most primitive object explored in our solar system, and therefore will also be a good indicator of what conditions were like in this distant part of the solar system as it began forming 4.5 billion years ago. It's located in the Kuiper Belt, the outermost region of the solar system beyond Neptune.

It's also the most dangerous mission attempted by a spacecraft.

New Horizons is literally flying in the dark. Four billion miles from the sun, Ultima Thule receives only about .05 percent the sunlight as Earth.

"Out there, the Sun is only about as bright as a full moon on Earth, so Ultima is only very, very faintly lit," New Horizons Principle Investigator Alan Stern wrote in his final report ahead of the flyby.

To make the flyby attempt a success, the spacecraft's team is analyzing images of Ultima taken by New Horizons as it nears the Kuiper Belt Object, or KBO. The images, along with radio tracking of the spacecraft, tell the spacecraft navigators if they need to make a change to improve the flyby observations.

The final changes can be made on New Year's Eve ahead of the big event. 

Here's how you can follow NASA's history-making piano-sized spacecraft as it takes a snapshot of a fossil of our solar system just after midnight on Jan. 1.

Before the flyby

Due to the government shutdown, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, or APL, had stepped in to keep the public updated on behalf of NASA throughout the flyby. However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridestine tweeted on Thursday that NASA will be streaming flyby events and providing social media coverage after all. Here is a link with a full list of live events to watch on NASA TV.

"The contract for these activities was forward funded," Bridenstine said in a tweet.

APL in Laurel, Maryland, which manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, will also provide updates in the days, hours and minutes before New Horizon goes zooming by the Kuiper Belt object.

Follow APL's Twitter feed @jhuapl and updates from the spacecraft @NASANewHorizons.

People can also follow the Ultima Thule approach through NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System app, available for Windows and Mac operating systems. The program allows the public to follow the path of New Horizons as it speeds through the outer reaches of the solar system toward Ultima Thule and “watch” a simulation of the Ultima flyby in real time over New Year’s 2019. Download the app here.

Talking to New Horizons

New Horizons’ team tracks and downlinks the spacecraft through the international Deep Space network. Watch the as the three DSN facilities in California, Spain and Australia receive New Horizons' signal through the Deep Space Network Now page here.

Waiting for Ultima arrival

New Horizons is expected to officially fly by Ultima at 12:33 a.m. on Jan. 1. However, because of the 4.1 billion mile distance, it won’t be clear that the mission was a success until about 10 a.m. the next morning.

Here is the full schedule of milestones before and after the flyby.

At its closest approach, New Horizons will be 2,200 miles from Ultima’s surface, moving at 32,000 mph. It will be the most distant flyby ever attempted, and is likely to produce close-up images of a KBO.

By noon on New Year’s Day, the first images could be downlinked. Stern writes that it's possible those images could be even higher-resolution than the 2015 Pluto flyby images, and those were amazing.

In the best case scenario, New Horizons could capture images at about 115 feet per pixel, almost twice the resolution of Pluto images.

"If we succeed at this observation, we'll have far better imaging resolution of Ultima than we got at Pluto," Stern writes. "If we don't, other imaging observations will still exceed most of the Pluto imaging."

Again, New Horizons is photographing Ultima under some pretty hazardous conditions moving at more than 32,000 mph with barely any sunlight.

"While we don't want to fail, you should know that these stretch-goal observations are risky," Stern said. "But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do."

This image made available by NASA on Friday, July 24, 2015 shows a combination of images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft with enhanced colors to show differences in the composition and texture of Pluto's surface.
This image made available by NASA on Friday, July 24, 2015 shows a combination of images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft with enhanced colors to show differences in the composition and texture of Pluto's surface.

When those images do come back, NASA said scientists expect to see Ultima Thule has a reddish color probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years. The flyby will also tell us whether the KBO has any moons or rings.

In the next two days after the flyby, APL will likely share flyby images captured during the main event as well as some data collected by New Horizons’ suite of science instruments.

However, it will take about two years to send back approximately 7 gigabytes of data gathered during the flyby.

What’s next?

NASA has funded the $81 million extended mission until 2021. If the spacecraft is healthy, it is expected to continue on surveying more objects in the Kuiper Belt.

“New Horizons will train its cameras on at least 25 KBOs, taking long-distance images to estimate each object’s shape and surface properties,” according to NASA. 

The spacecraft’s instruments will be on the lookout for objects with rings and moons and measure Kuiper Belt dust production and distribution. 

Check back for updates on New Year's Eve ahead of the flyby.


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