The New Horizons spacecraft is set to kick off the new year in spectacular fashion as it will make its first flyby of Ultima Thule - a 25 kilometre wide asteroid located in the Kuiper Belt - on January 1.
Scientists made a decision to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. This incredible feat was possible because thousands of operations on the spacecraft worked in sync.
Twenty-four hours before closest approach, Ultima Thule still takes up only two pixels in images taken by New Horizons' camera screen.
An artist's conception of what Ultima Thule might look like. The small body continues to orbit undisturbed on a more circular path than comets, never getting closer than 42 Astronomical Units, or 42 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun.
Hal Weaver, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and a project scientist on the New Horizons mission, said: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". On the right, a zoomed-in image of the region outlined in yellow on the left, and processed to remove the background stars from the view, helps this distant object to stand out better. Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. Subsequent observations suggest it is small - no more 20 miles across - and peanut shaped.
"We know that anything we say is going to be wrong tomorrow", Spencer said.
It's been a busy new year period for NASA: its Osiris Rex spacecraft just entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu on Monday, too. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission.
When the spacecraft was finally declared healthy and the flyby successful, scientists and other team members embraced, while hundreds of others gave a standing ovation. The spacecraft is believed to have come within 2200 miles (3500km) of Ultima Thule.
And even the U.S. government shutdown couldn't stop NASA from celebrating such an extraordinary feat.
A billion miles past Pluto, at 12:33 a.m. EST tonight on New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will swoop in close to the most distant object humans will have ever visited. "This is what leadership in space exploration is all about". Now, it is heading towards the edge of the solar system and will shortly reach Ultima Thule, where it will complete a historic flyby.
Nasa's New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity's most distant exploration of another world. The far-flung space rock is an inhabitant of the Kuiper Belt, the ring of debris that encircles the icy outer reaches of solar system. The craft is now so far from Earth that it takes six hours and eight minutes to receive a command from Earth. NASA launched the probe in 2006.
"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel in a statement.
The object was previously known as 2014 MU69. New Horizons sped past Ultima at a speed of 32,000 mph, coming as close as 2,200 miles.
Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the northernmost point on Earth. And there is a puny, primitive rock called Ultima Thule, a relic of the solar system's origins, whose name means "beyond the borders of the known world".