It was back in August that NASA showed pictures of its New Horizon spacecraft, which had just seen its next airport target, which was 100 million miles away. Well, in the months since the update, the probe has been speeding more than 30,000 miles per hour and as luck would get it, it will reach its current destination on New Year's Day.
The probe's current goal is an object known as Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule is a frozen piece of material back from the early days of our solar system, and scientists are incredibly happy to learn more about it.
The Ultima Thule was originally discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope during a study of the Kuiper belt, which is a ring of dirt and objects of various sizes that orbit the sun for distances far greater than even Neptune. The purpose of the study was to find an object worth studying from New Horizons, and scientists know very little about it.
Ultima Thule is estimated to be a "relic" of the early solar system from 25 to 45 kilometers in diameter, but astronomers will have a much better idea of size and shape when New Horizons does its close.
On January 1, 2019, the spacecraft comes very close to Ultima Thule. Its current trajectory will take it within what NASA estimates to be just 2,100 miles of the object, which will be close enough to see the object in detail. But because New Horizons is going to move as fast as it passes the rock – about 32,000 miles per hour – it won't take long to make its observations.
In addition, it actually takes a long time to collect the data from the spacecraft at such a distance. NASA believes it can take about 18 months for New Horizons to send back all that gathered under its airfield so we'll have to wait a while before we learn all there is to know about Ultima Thule.