By Robbie Gonzalez
Way, way out at the cold, dark edges of the solar system—past the rocky inner planets, beyond the gas giants, a billion miles more remote than Pluto—drifts a tiny frozen world so mysterious, scientists still aren’t entirely sure if it’s one world or two.
Astronomers call it Ultima Thule, an old cartography term meaning “beyond the known world.” Its name is a reference to its location in the Kuiper Belt, the unexplored “third zone” of our solar system populated by millions of small, icy bodies.
Numerous though they are, no Kuiper Belt object has ever been seen up close. NASA’s two Voyager probes—which traversed the third zone decades ago—might have spied a glimpse of one had they been equipped with the right instruments, except that the Kuiper Belt hadn’t even been detected yet. On New Years Eve, for the first time, NASA will get a chance at some facetime with one of these enigmatic space rocks.
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