The new horizons, the spacecraft that introduced the first glimpse of the remote Pluto, will shed light on another world, a small ice body of 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.
On New Year's Day at 12:33 pm ET, the spacecraft will fly to 2014 MU69, given the informal name Ultima Thule, a 30-mile-wide facility that is part of the Kuiper Belt. The region is a disk of icebergs beyond the orbit of Neptune.
It will be one of the farthest regions ever visited by the spacecraft.
"We are on the Ultimatum threshold," said Alan Stern, chief researcher at New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute, a non-profit organization based in Texas. "We have never seen any object on the Kuiper Belt." We have no idea how their geology is, how they evolved, how they were built, even from what they do. "
The plane flew past Pluto, was once considered our ninth planet and is now considered a dwarf planet and part of the Kuiper belt, in July 2015. Stern loudly opposes the decision to advertise Pluto.
Revealing your secrets
When New Horizons flew alongside Pluto – a much larger world than Ultima Thule with a diameter of 2,380 kilometers – revealed that things that planetary scientists could previously theorize.
Some of the findings include: Pluto is geologically active in the recent past; there is a denser atmosphere than expected (and it's blue); and it is home to the movement of nitrogen glaciers and floating ice mountains.
When New Horizons will remove Ultima Thule at 14 km / s on January 1, will be only 3,500 kilometers above its surface, providing images at a much higher resolution than even those taken from Pluto.
Stern hopes for new surprises.
"We will look for rings, we will ask [moons]. We will see if there is an atmosphere, "said Stern." So, it's a lot about composition and geology and how it's built. How [did] these building blocks of planets were made 4 billion years ago. This is the most well-preserved sample of that era, from the formation of the planet, to anyone ever once. "
The only other object is Pluto, but, noted Stern, he is subjected to geological evolution, and is not preserved at all.
"Ultima is our first and – for now – the only chance to really get into a time capsule from the formation of the planet era," he said.
Getting a celestial body more than six billion kilometers and only half the size of Fort McMurre is not an easy task.
"Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, so it's 10,000 times weaker," said Stern. "This means that it's much harder to navigate, to follow at home in too much."
After the choice of Ultima Thule by several potential candidates, the Hubble Space Telescope helped scientists monitor the facility to fire the New Horizons engines and change their trajectory. Now that it is closer, they can follow it with the camera on the board.
But monitoring it was not the only challenge: since the spacecraft is so far away, there is less light to heat the instruments, so they are under greater pressure. Also, far beyond the Earth.
"The communication time has lasted four and a half hours each time to six hours in every way. It's a 12-hour trip," said Stern. "We are playing a chess game where every move takes 12 hours, with remote control with something [6.5 kilometres away] and without backup. "
Stern is excited about the opportunity to find another goal to send new horizons after visiting Ultima Tule.
"The mission was an amazing experience and great success," said Stern.
The public is invited to participate in the mission sending a message to Ultima Tule.