“It’s really puzzling, because we know the shape is irregular,” Dr. Stern said.
While the partial federal government shutdown has little direct effect on the flyby — it is considered an essential government activity, plus most of the people working on the mission are employees of the Johns Hopkins laboratory, not NASA — it has been a bureaucratic hassle.
The laboratory has to take over some communications responsibilities usually handled by NASA, and two members of the mission’s science team who work at the NASA Ames Research Center in California needed a special exemption to come to Maryland and take part.
Final tweaks to the instructions for the flyby choreography, adjusting the time of the closest approach by a couple of seconds, were sent on Sunday to New Horizons.
Now all anyone can do at this point is watch and wait.
Early on Monday, a science fair-like atmosphere prevailed as specialists from New Horizons presented overviews of the mission and science to friends and families who came to share in the excitement. They will celebrate the start of the new year at midnight and then the closest approach of the flyby 33 minutes later, but they will not know how New Horizons, which will be busy making its scientific observations, will be doing at that moment.
“We’re very confident in the spacecraft, and we’re very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima,” said Dr. Stern, the principal investigator for the mission. “But I’d be kidding you if I didn’t tell you that we’re also on pins and needles to see out how this turns out. We only get one shot at it.”
Hours later, the spacecraft will turn back to Earth and send a 15-minute message that will confirm that the encounter occurred, but will not include any photographs or scientific data. If all goes well, that data — which takes six hours to reach Earth — will arrive at 10:28 a.m. on Tuesday.
Over the next couple of days, preliminary looks at the data, including what the scientists hope will be striking images of Ultima Thule, will be beamed back to Earth. Twenty months will pass before scientists have the full set of measurements. And they will be eagerly awaiting every bit of that stream.
“We are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule,” Dr. Stern said.