New Horizon spacecraft to send images of Ultima Thule

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Happening At 9:33 p.m. on New Year's Eve an unexpected bonus from the spacecraft that showed us our first pictures of Pluto. After that encounter, scientists redirected New Horizons toward a small object, maybe 20 miles in diameter, that we did not even know existed until a few years ago.

On this last day of 2018, a few sharpened pixels gives us a look at an approaching astronomical frenzy.

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"We have never not been surprised before," said Dr. Bruce Betts, Chief Scientist at The Planetary Society.

"I hate to have expectations because every time I do it is exceeded," added Conrad Jung, an astronomer at Chabot Space and Science Center.

It's a story that began in January 2006 with the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Monday night is the encore.

"It did a flyby past Jupiter on the way out," said Dr. Betts. "We got Jupiter for free and our first view of the Pluto system which is more intense and interesting than we ever expected.

And now, a mystery object named Ultima Thule prepares for its entrance. Science didn't even know of the strange world's existence when New Horizons launched. They added it on as a destination after the Pluto flyby.

Ultima Thule is the farthest object ever explored by man-- one billion miles past Pluto in a waste area of our Solar System called the Kuiper Belt.

"It's believed to be all the stuff that didn't come together to make the things we are familiar with," explained Conrad Jung.

The scope of this accomplishment is mind-boggling. New Horizons has traveled four billion miles. The spacecraft will hit its mark within split seconds of wen expected, and just a few hundred yards. It will send back spectacular pictures from a camera with less resolution than your hand-held device. But based on the pictures of Pluto-- can you imagine what we may see? The images will take six hours, at light speed, to reach Earth.

As for New Horizons? The spacecraft still has fuel and can operate for 20 more years.

There may be another destination in its future.
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