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This composite image of Ultima Thule was taken on Dec. 1. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

On New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is expected to make history by conducting the most distant flyby ever, by zooming past an object a billion miles past Pluto. It's called "Ultima Thule," meaning "beyond the known world."

Why it matters: The spacecraft, which is the same one that sent back dazzling images of Pluto in 2015, is slated to be the first to explore an object in the Kuiper Belt a region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that are thought to be leftovers from the solar system's early days.

The goal of the mission is to learn more about the building blocks of planets. "In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago," principal investigator Alan Stern wrote in a NASA blog post.

The background: The New Horizons spacecraft is expected to pass three times closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto, offering scientists a closeup view of an object in the middle of the Kuiper Belt.

  • Even though it will be zipping past at about 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft is expected to yield high resolution images that will be sent back to researchers on Earth.
  • This distant region of our solar system has not been explored before, and scientists believe there may be millions of Kuiper Belt objects.

According to Stern, it's known that Ultima Thule was formed about 4 billion miles away from Earth. "Because of where it was formed and the fact that Ultima is not large enough to have a geologic engine like Pluto and larger planets, we expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored," Stern wrote.

What to watch: Assuming all goes according to plan, images and data from the close approach will start flowing back to Earth on the day of the flyby, though the distance means there will be about a 6-hour delay between data transmission from the spacecraft and reception here on Earth.

"By that first week of January we expect to have even better images and a good idea of whether Ultima has satellites, rings or an atmosphere," Stern wrote.

"The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to yield new knowledge. Being the most distant exploration of anything in history, it’s also going to be historic."
— Stern

How to watch during shutdown: A government shutdown will not affect the mission itself, but NASA won't air it live on NASA-TV or blanket its social media channels with coverage, an agency spokesperson told Axios. To follow along, watch a livestream from the Applied Physics Laboratory and monitor its social media accounts.

Editor's note: This piece has been corrected to show that the flyby distance between New Horizons and Ultima Thule will be close to 2,200 miles (not 22,000 miles). Also, the one-way transmission time between the spacecraft and Earth will be about 6 hours (instead of 12 hours).

Go deeper

NRA files for bankruptcy, says it will reincorporate in Texas

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) speaks during CPAC in 2016. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The National Rifle Association said Friday it has filed for voluntary bankruptcy as part of a restructuring plan.

Driving the news: The gun rights group said it would reincorporate in Texas, calling New York, where it is currently registered, a "toxic political environment." Last year, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, alleging the group committed fraud by diverting roughly $64 million in charitable donations over three years to support reckless spending by its executives.

32 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden: "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution

Joe Biden. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine manufacturing, as he outlined a five-point plan to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in the first months of his presidency.

Why it matters: With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warning of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, Biden is trying to establish how he’ll approach the pandemic differently than President Trump.

A new Washington

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Image

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Friday that the city should expect a "new normal" for security — even after President-elect Biden's inauguration.

The state of play: Inaugurations are usually a point of celebration in D.C., but over 20,000 troops are now patrolling Washington streets in an unprecedented preparation for Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20.