NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made a historic New Year’s encounter with an object nicknamed Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt a billion miles beyond Pluto. The probe passed around 3,500 kilometres from the mysterious object at 0533 GMT on New Year’s Day, making it the most distant Solar System body ever explored up close.
Now more than two years outbound from its historic encounter with Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on target for a fleeting flyby less than 2,200 miles from 2014 MU69, an icy, city-sized world set to become the most distant object ever visited, just after midnight Jan. 1, 2019. Scientists now say the probe may be able to pursue another destination some time in the 2020s.
Ground observations of the New Horizons spacecraft’s next target last month revealed the distant object, lurking in the outer Solar System more than four billion miles from Earth, might have an unconventional elongated shape, or even consist of two icy bodies orbiting one another in an age-old cosmic dance.
Scientists planning the the next phase of NASA’s New Horizons mission, a robotic craft that completed the first exploration of Pluto in 2015, are going into the flyby of a frozen, faraway city-sized clump of rock on New Year’s Day 2019 armed with little knowledge of the target lurking around 4 billion miles from Earth.
Decisions on the future of a joint robotic mission between NASA and the European Space Agency to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth have been put off until later this year after European governments declined to fully fund their part of the project in December.