NASA's New Horizons set to ring in new year with fly-by past icy planetary object

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which has yielded the first close-up views of Pluto, was poised to ring in the new year by flying past the ancient icy object “Ultima Thule” some billions of miles away from Earth.

New Horizons’ encounter with Ultima Thule was to occur around 12:33 a.m. ET – more than three years after it first swung past Pluto. The spacecraft is reportedly the size of a baby grand piano and is expected to hurtle within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule. NASA's link to the event can be accessed here.

Images of the brief encounter will take approximately 10 hours for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics to process. A few black-and-white images of Ultima Thule might be available following the official confirmation, but close-ups won’t be ready until later this week.

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Scientists say Ultima Thule shouldn’t contain rings or moons that would damage New Horizons. Traveling at 31,500 mph, the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. It’s a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the considerable unknowns and because the spacecraft is older.

“Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!! EVER,” tweeted the project’s lead scientist, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.

The encounter comes nearly 50 years after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon in July 1969.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to the spacecraft’s itinerary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.