(Image source: NASA)

New Horizons spacecraft to reach Ultima Thule

NASA’s New Horizons interplanetary space probe – part of the agency’s New Frontiers program – was launched in 2006 to perform a flyby of Pluto and capture images of our solar system’s most tentative planet. In 2015, the Pluto approach went as planned.

At 36,000 miles per hours, faster than any other mission before it, New Horizons took almost 10 years to reach Pluto.

Now, three years later and left without a mission, New Horizons will explore a mysterious object (or pair of objects) named Ultima Thule, meaning “beyond the known world.” The reddish piece of rock and ice is thought to be a castoff of an older version of our solar system, untouched for billions of years.

Artist's interpretation of Ultima Thule (Image source: NASA)

“This is pure exploration,” said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, in a statement. “We are really flying toward something completely unknown, unlike any other object we've studied in the past.”

Ultima Thule is located in the Kuiper Belt, at the edge of the solar system and New Horizons will reach it on January 1 at roughly 12:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST). After a slight delay – travelling 4 billion miles back to Earth – the images are expected by 10 a.m. EST.

After that, New Horizons will continue into its twilight years and deeper into the Kuiper Belt. Scientists predict that the spacecraft will have enough power to keep itself operational through the 2030s.

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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at william.kucinski@sae.org.
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