"What will Ultima reveal? No one knows," said NASA's mission director, Alan Stern.
Just minutes into the new year, NASA’s New Horizons space exploration craft will soar past the frozen body of Ultima Thule and into the unknown in humanity’s farthest-ever encounter with another world.
"What will Ultima reveal? No one knows. To me, that is what’s most exciting—this is pure exploration and fundamental science," said NASA’s leading planetary scientist on the mission, Alan Stern.
Obitting along the solar system’s icy edges, the 4.5 billion-year-old celestial being has been almost perfectly preserved. Official known as the “Kuiper Belt Object,” scientists know very little about the Ultima, but hope the explorative journey will unlock some of the galaxy’s best kept secrets.
"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," said Stern.
Circling just light years beyond Neptune, the object has eluded scientists for generations, with some images illustrating a strange, non-spherical shape. While more recent photos taken by the New Horizons, fail to shed further light on the subject.
"It's really a puzzle. New Horizons will map Ultima, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere," said Stern, adding that the object’s temperature and mass will also be documented during the 72-hour period.
NASA will receive some of the first images on New Year’s Day as the spacecraft zooms roughly 3540 km above Ultima Thule. The photos, taken with almost 10,000 pixels, will be ready for release on Jan. 2, the scientist said.
“It should be breathtaking,” he said.