August 22, 2018New Horizons Begins Its Approach to Ultima Thule

NASA Spacecraft Speeding Toward New Year's Flyby in the Kuiper Belt

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is officially on approach to its next flyby target, the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

At 4:52 a.m. EDT on Aug. 13, the mission operations team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, confirmed through NASA's Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia, that New Horizons had successfully transitioned from spin mode into 3-axis mode. "This means the spacecraft has now been positioned and configured to start approach operations," said Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, of APL.

Observations New Horizons will make of Ultima over the next four months will help the mission team refine the spacecraft's course toward a closest approach to Ultima, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, 2019. The Ultima flyby will be the first-ever exploration of a Kuiper Belt object and the farthest exploration of any planetary body in history, shattering the record New Horizons itself set at Pluto in July 2015 by about 1 billion miles.

"It's exciting!" Bowman said. "We've now traveled almost 90 percent of the way from Pluto to Ultima Thule, and making final preparations for the flyby this winter."

At the time of confirmation, New Horizons was 3.84 billion miles (6.18 billion kilometers) from Earth, its systems operating normally, speeding along at 31,320 miles (50,868 kilometers) per hour. The spacecraft was just 108 million miles (174 million kilometers) from Ultima, officially named 2014 MU69.