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NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever

NASA's New Horizon is about to boldly go where no spacecraft has gone before.

On New Year's Eve, the New Horizon spacecraft will make the furthest planetary flyby ever.

It will fly past the asteroid Ultima Thule, or its official name (486958) 2014 MU69, which is more than six billion kilometres away in the Kuiper Belt.

New Horizons will fly within 3,500 kilometres of the asteroid, speeding past at more than 50,000 kilometres per hour.

NASA made its final corrections for the spacecraft's approach this week, with even the smallest change having a big difference.

"That 0.26 meter/second burn lasted only 27 seconds and was executed perfectly by the spacecraft, cancelling about 300 kilometers (180 miles) of estimated targeting error and speeding up our arrival time by about five seconds," NASA said in a statement.

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The final sequence of flyby instructions were sent on Christmas Day.

Any other changes will need to be sent to New Horizons by December 30, as it takes 12 hours for the messages to be transmitted to the spacecraft.

"But we cannot burn the engines any longer. This is because New Horizons will soon enter Encounter Mode, which does not allow for engine burns," said NASA.

Encounter Mode means that if there were to be an issue with the flyby instructions sent from Earth, the onboard software will take over and correct any problems itself, instead of calling back to Earth.

New Horizon's flight path. Image: NASA

NASA will take photos of Ultima, but has no idea what it will reveal.

"We expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored," NASA said.

"In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago."

The photos should be back on Earth by late evening on January 1.

New Horizon has already had a stellar journey -- in 2015 it was the first spacecraft to fly past the dwarf planet Pluto.

Contact the author: jdunne@networkten.com.au