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Situational awareness: "U.S. stocks suffer worst year since 2008 financial crisis; S&P 500 sees 6.2 percent annual drop, Dow falls 5.6 percent." [AP]

1 big thing: Beyond the known world

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

NASA is on track to give the world a very special gift just 33 minutes after the ball drops tonight in New York City, scientists said today.

Why it matters: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will pass just 22,000 miles away from Ultima Thule, which is 4 billion miles from Earth, wasn't even discovered until 2014, and is the farthest object to ever be explored by humankind, Axios Science editor Andrew Freedman notes.

The big picture: The flyby of Ultima Thule, whose nickname means "beyond the known world," may give scientists new and vital insights into how the solar system and planets like Earth first formed.

  • This is the first time scientists have ever closely studied a Kuiper Belt object, and scientists said today the flyby is proceeding according to plan, but without a guarantee of success.
  • “We are straining at the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we’ll know how well we did,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, at a press conference.

Be smart: Scientists believe that Ultima Thule has been frozen in time since the solar system first formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

  • The Kuiper Belt, where Ultima Thule is located, is a region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that are thought to be leftovers from the solar system's early days.
  • There are thought to be hundreds of thousands of objects like Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt, and the spacecraft will attempt to gather data on others to learn more about them, and how Ultima Thule might differ from them.

How to watch: To follow along with the mission, watch a livestream from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, and monitor its social media accounts. Events will also stream online via NASA.

Bonus: Pics du jour
Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

People gather as fireworks light up the Hong Kong skyline marking the New Year celebrations.

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