It was in August that NASA displayed images of its New Horizons spacecraft, which had just located its next target overhead 100 million kilometers away. Well, in the months following that upgrade, the spacecraft has accelerated to over 30,000 miles per hour, and fortunately it will reach its current destination on New Year's Day.
The current target of the probe is an object known as Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule is a frozen piece of material left over from the early days of our Solar System, and the researchers are incredibly excited to learn more about it.
Ultima Thule was originally discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope during a survey of the Kuiper belt, which is a ring of debris and objects of various sizes that orbit the Sun at much greater distances than even Neptune. The aim of the research was to find an object worthy of study by New Horizons, and scientists know very little about it.
Called the "relic" of the ancient Solar System, Ultima Thule is estimated to be 25 to 45 kilometers in diameter, but astronomers will have a much better idea of its size and shape as New Horizons approves.
On January 1, 2019, the spacecraft will arrive very close to Ultima Thule. Your current trajectory will take you within what NASA estimates to be only 2,200 miles from the object, which will be close enough to see the object in great detail. However, since the New Horizons will move so fast by going through the rock – about 32,000 miles per hour – you will not have time to make your observations.
Also, gathering the spacecraft's data at a certain distance will take a long time. NASA estimates that it would take about 18 months for New Horizons to send back everything it collected during the flyby, so we'll have to wait a bit before we learn all there is to know about Ultima Thule.