Act Two of the 12-year-old New Horizons mission to Pluto and the solar system’s icy Kuiper Belt is heating up, with less than a month to go before NASA’s piano-sized spacecraft makes history’s farthest-out close encounter with a celestial object.
The New Year’s flyby of a mysterious Kuiper Belt object (or objects) known as Ultima Thule (UL-ti-ma THOO-lee) follows up on the mission’s first act, which hit a climax three years ago with a history-making flyby of Pluto.
Launched in 2006, New Horizons was never meant to be a one-shot deal. Even before the Pluto flyby, mission managers used the Hubble Space Telescope to identify its next quarry, a billion miles farther out in the Kuiper Belt. Now it’s crunch time for New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and his team.