Billions of miles past Pluto, at the farthest end of the solar system, lies an object called an ulterior ultima. His name means "beyond the known world."
Although scientists have identified it with telescopes, they do not know much about it. What they discovered from their observations is that Ultima Thule is a rock in the Kuiper Belt of the Solar System, the region beyond Neptune. It is irregularly shaped at 18 miles. It may seem like two potatoes that have been sandwiched together, so:
On January 1, the new Horizons spacecraft, the famous one to fly by Pluto, will pass by Ultima to explore this strange rock and try to learn more about the very formation of our solar system.
After new horizons passed Pluto in 2015, mission scientists chose Ultima to hang at the next station in the Kuiper belt, mainly because New Horizons had the ability to reach it with the remaining fuel.
But the jolt of the New Year is significant, because Ultima will be the farthest object in the solar system humanity has ever explored, and one of the most primitive.
Because Ultima is in such a cold, remote, and quiet part of the solar system, it probably surrounds the sun uninterrupted for almost the entire solar system.
"We expect that Ultima is the most preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored," writes Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons, in an article on the blog. "What will you discover Ultima? No one knows, for me, that's what's most exciting – it's a pure investigation and basic science!"
To Stern, the flyby – and the images that come from it – will resemble the famous "Earthrise" picture taken by Apollo 8 mission 50 years ago. This image was taken for the first time humans surrounded the moon. It was the first time we had seen our planet from the perspective of another world.
"All these years between the searches of Apollo 8 and December, NASA made history by studying farther and farther," writes Stern, "as a result we made Carl Sagan's prediction that one or two planets would change from light points to real world and research" .
For now, Ultima Thule is still just a light spot. This is how it looks from the camera of New Horizons, when the spacecraft is getting closer and closer.
But soon it will be much more than a bright spot. The images of the object may be dimmer than those of Pluto (this is a Billion More miles from the sun). But new horizons have a camera that can make amazing fine details. Just see the photos taken by Pluto.
Recall that Pluto used to be just a light point too. New horizons have discovered this as an amazing, dynamic world with a beautiful heart shaped ice plane. This GIF shows the best picture of Pluto we had from 2015 becoming what's new horizons seen on its historic flyby. It came from a blur of something of beauty.
(And, scientists are still debating whether Pluto deserves to be dedicated to a planet instead of a dwarf star.)
New Horizons will pass by Ultima Thule around 12:33 am Eastern on January 1, immediately after the start of the new year. You can follow along with NASA on the live NASA TV stream (see below). New Horizons will also carry messages from the public (the submissions ended on December 21) to celebrate the distant arrival.