I love the timing of New Horizons’ next encounter, just as we begin a new year in 2019. On the one hand, we’ll be able to look back to a mission that has proven successful in some ways beyond the dreams of its creators. On the other hand, we’ll have the first close-up brush past a Kuiper Belt Object, 2014 MU69 or, as it’s now nicknamed, Ultima Thule. This farthest Solar System object ever visited by a spacecraft may, in turn, be followed by yet another still farther, if all goes well and the mission is extended. This assumes, of course, another target in range.

We can’t rule out a healthy future for this spacecraft after Ultima Thule. Bear in mind that New Horizons seems to be approaching its current target along its rotational axis. That could reduce the need for additional maneuvers to improve visibility for the New Horizons cameras, saving fuel for later trajectory changes if indeed another target can be found. The current mission extension ends in 2021, but another extension would get a powerful boost if new facilities like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope become available, offering more capability at tracking down an appropriate KBO. Hubble and New Horizons itself will also keep looking.

But even lacking such a secondary target, an operational New Horizons could return useful data about conditions in the outer Solar System and the heliosphere, with the spacecraft’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator still producing sufficient power for some years. I’ve seen a worst-case 2026 as the cutoff point, but Alan Stern is on record as saying that the craft has enough hydrazine fuel and power from its plutonium generator to stay functional until 2035.

By way of comparison with Voyager, which we need to revisit tomorrow, New Horizons won’t reach 100 AU until 2038, nicely placed to explore the heliosphere if still operational.

But back to Ultima Thule, a destination now within 112 million kilometers of the spacecraft. New Horizons is closing at a rate of 14.4 kilometers per second, enroute to what the New Horizons team says will need to be a 120 by 320 kilometer ‘box’ in a flyby that needs to be predicted within 140 seconds. Based on what we saw at Pluto/Charon, these demands can be met.

Image: At left, a composite optical navigation image, produced by combining 20 images from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) acquired on Sept. 24. The center photo is a composite optical navigation image of Ultima Thule after subtracting the background star field; star field subtraction is an important component of optical navigation image processing since it isolates Ultima from nearby stars. At right is a magnified view of the star-subtracted image, showing the close proximity and relative agreement between the observed and predicted locations of Ultima. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/KinetX.

Above are the latest navigation images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). An engine burn on October 3 further tightened location and timing information for the New Year’s flyby, a 3 ½ minute maneuver that adjusted the spacecraft’s trajectory and increased its speed by 2.1 meters per second. Records fall every time New Horizons does this, with the October 3 correction marking the farthest course correction ever performed.

It’s interesting to learn, too, that this is the first time New Horizons has made a targeting maneuver for the Ultima Thule flyby that used pictures taken by New Horizons itself. The ‘aim point’ is 3,500 kilometers from Ultima at closest approach, and we’ve just learned that these navigation images confirm that Ultima is within 500 kilometers of its expected position.

“Since we are flying very fast and close to the surface of Ultima, approximately four times closer than the Pluto flyby in July 2015, the timing of the flyby must be very accurate,” said Derek Nelson, of KinetX Aerospace, Inc., New Horizons optical navigation lead. “The images help to determine the position and timing of the flyby, but we must also trust the prior estimate of Ultima’s position and velocity to ensure a successful flyby. These first images give us confidence that Ultima is where we expected it to be, and the timing of the flyby will be accurate.”

I’m already imagining New Year’s eve with Ultima Thule to look forward to. You can adjust your own plans depending on your time zone, but the projected flyby time is 0533 UTC on the 1st. As with Pluto/Charon, the excitement of the encounter continues to build. In the broader picture, the more good science we do in space, the more drama we produce as we open up new terrain. This week alone, we need to look at the Hayabusa2 operations at Ryugu, the upcoming OSIRIS-REx exploration of asteroid Bennu, and the continuing saga of Voyager 2.

But New Horizons also reminds us of an uncomfortable fact. When it comes to the outer system, this is the only spacecraft making studies of the Kuiper Belt from within it, and there is no other currently planned. Data from this mission will need to carry us for quite some time.