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NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest body ever photographed

Dec 31, 2018 |

By ChannelNewsAsia

A NASA spaceship is zooming toward the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever photographed by humankind, a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule about 6.4 billion km away.

The US space agency will ring in the New Year with a live online broadcast to mark historic flyby of the mysterious object in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt at 12.33am on Jan 1 (0533 GMT Tuesday).

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby, as NASA commentators describe the close pass on the agency's website.

Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

But if all goes well, the first images should be in hand by the end of New Year's Day.

And judging by the latest tweet from Alan Stern, the lead scientist on the New Horizons mission, the excitement among team members is palpable.

"IT'S HAPPENING!! Flyby is upon us! @NewHorizons2015 is healthy and on course! The farthest exploration of worlds in history!" he wrote on Saturday (Dec 29).

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule looks like - whether it is round or oblong or even if it is a single object or a cluster.

It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 20-30km in size.

Scientists decided to study it 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.

"At closest approach we are going to try to image Ultima at three times the resolution we had for Pluto," said Stern.

"If we can accomplish that it will be spectacular."

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is heading for a Jan 1 flyby of Ultima Thule
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is heading for a Jan 1 flyby of Ultima Thule, an icy object in the Kuiper Belt on the outer limits of the solar system. (Graphic: AFP/Jonathan WALTER)

Hurtling through space at a speed of 51,500 km per hour, the spacecraft aims to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of the surface of Ultima Thule.

The flyby will be fast, at a speed of 14km per second.

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