Queen's Brian May on New Year mission to NASA

Queen's Brian May on New Year mission to NASA

What's happening: NASA will be sending its New Horizons probe past a space rock, called Ultima Thule, that's never been seen before, NBC News reports. Some 12 years after being launched from Earth, New Horizons has only recently made it to Pluto in 2016, after a gruelling four billion mile journey. Now, the Kuiper Belt is thought to include millions of icy objects, unused planetary building blocks left over from the earliest days of the solar system. Now, it is heading towards the edge of the solar system and will shortly reach Ultima Thule, where it will complete a historic flyby. This configuration limits the spacecraft's communication with Earth, commanding it to quickly address any technical issues on its own, then get back to science. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

FILE - This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched and only found out about it in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope. It takes Ultima Thule 298 years to orbit the sun.

On Monday, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory repeatedly underscored how little anyone still knows about Ultima Thule. The close encounter will mark the farthest spacecraft flyby in history.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The New Horizons probe is about the size of a grand piano.

Another NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, also set a new record on Monday by entering orbit around the asteroid Bennu, the smallest cosmic object - about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter - ever circled by a spacecraft.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.




"Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down", said deputy project scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.

The station will make a 140-second flyby 2014 MU69 January 1, 2019, at 05:33 GMT (07:33 Kiev - NV), the minimum object distance will be about 3500 kilometers, which will provide a resolution of up to thirty meters per pixel, which is two times higher than that of images of the surface of Pluto taken by New Horizons.

With Ultima Thule keeping its secrets right up until the last moment, it seems, there's really no telling exactly what New Horizons will find as it whizzes past tonight.

After a wait of several hours, there was applause and cheering at Nasa's mission control after it was announced that New Horizons was in full working order.

The New Horizons Twitter account will also be active during the flyby, so that people will be able to follow textual updates in case they are unable to watch the stream. "Beyond the terrestrial planets lie the giant planets, and beyond the giant planets lies the Kuiper Belt", Stern says.

"We're rendezvousing with something that's a mountain draped in black velvet in nearly pitch dark conditions and we're screaming up to it ... within 2 seconds of perfection", Stern said.

It is one of the oldest asteroids known to NASA, and scientists hope it will reveal more about the early formation of the solar system.

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