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New Horizons spacecraft set for historic Kuiper belt object flyby

Planet explorers from around the world flocked to Baltimore, Maryland to talk about the world's first study of the Kuiper belt object outside of Pluto’s orbit. The flight will take place on the eve of the New Year and New Year on the spacecraft "New Horizons", which flew past Pluto in 2015.

The Kuiper Belt is the third body population in the Solar System, outside of the main planets and asteroids of the main belt. It is far beyond Neptune and Pluto, and probably consists of hundreds of thousands of small objects, which are primitive materials that open the window to the early state of our solar system and its formation.

The New Horizons team, headed by planetary scientist Alan Stern, chose an object discovered just a few years ago, now marked MU69 2014, now called Ultima Thule (pronounced TOOL-ee), a Latin phrase meaning "a place outside the known world."

This small body probably consists of dirty ice and stony materials, and its length is only about 30 kilometers. It is probably reddish due to the radiation decay of materials on the surface of the ice and reflects only about 10 percent of the light that falls on it – it is very dark. The lack of rotation observed by scientists tracking the light curve of an object suggests that it may be lengthened, or consist of two or more petals, or it may contain material that aggregates freely. The possible unusual structure of the Ultima Thule will be one of the interesting possibilities as the spacecraft approaches and sends images over the next few days.

The meeting will take place far from home. The circling takes place at a distance of 6.62 billion km (4.11 billion miles) from the Earth. Thus, the information sent back from New Horizons, which returns with an amazing data transfer rate of 1000 bits per second, will also require more than six hours to return to Earth.

The flight will also take place at a decent distance of 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles), which means that – on the best images – an image with dimensions of about 30 meters (100 feet) will be resolved.

As in all such historical missions, the best parts are likely to be surprises. The spacecraft is functioning perfectly, and everyone here in Maryland is looking forward to the story that will be made tonight. Senior Editor Rich Talcott and I are here on the spot and will talk in detail about the mission. Check us out on Astronomy and Discover sites, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Oh, and tonight will be a big bonus. Our buddy Brian May, an astrophysicist and founder of Queen and guitarist, will present a new solo single tonight in honor of the New Horizons mission.

Get ready for an amazing New Year party!

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