NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which has yielded the first close-up views of Pluto, was poised to ring in the new year by flying past the ancient icy object "Ultima Thule" some billions of miles away from Earth.
With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
Queen guitarist Brian May is seeing in the New Year by unveiling his new single at Nasa's headquarters. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons". To me, it epitomizes the human spirit's unceasing desire to understand the universe we inhabit.
"Young craters could provide a window to see the composition of the subsurface of Ultima Thule". Ultima is surrounded by millions of cold fragments scientists believe originated with the birth of the solar system.
Possible twins: According to The Associated Press, the Ultima Thule object could be two objects orbiting close together.
Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.
The New Horizons spacecraft accomplished its primary mission on July 14, 2015, when it performed the first close encounter of Pluto.
Despite the uncertainty, tonight's gathering had numerous trappings of a New Year's Eve party, including sparkling wine and party hats.
The flyby at 12:33 am Tuesday (0533 GMT) will take place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
A schedule of New Horizons Ultima Thule flyby events.
Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth.
"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said during the news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team".
But beginning January 1, 2019, Ultima Thule will be far less mysterious, once the first images arrive. And now it's about to get a look at a mysterious object known as a minor planet, one of thousands in the outer reaches of the solar system.
"At closest approach we are going to try to image Ultima at three times the resolution we had for Pluto", said Stern during an interview on NASA TV last week.
Currently, there are no major hindrances between Ultima Thule and New Horizon.
The Kuiper Belt is full of small, icy bodies and worlds, and we don't know much about Ultima Thule.
Scientists are already split on whether it's elongated or even two objects - but it might be even weirder than expected. Subsequent observations suggest it is small - no more 20 miles across - and peanut shaped.
What scientists hope to gather from what the ship will be sending back is an insight into how the solar system was formed. It will also measure the Kuiper Belt's environment.
"We're rendezvousing with something that's a mountain draped in black velvet in nearly pitch dark conditions and we're screaming up to it ... within 2 seconds of perfection", Stern said.
After closely studying the asteroid for several weeks, Osiris-Rex fired its thrusters to bring it into orbit around Bennu at 7.43pm United Kingdom time on New Year's Eve.