Astronomy

Strange speck of light in the picture sequence of the approach to 2014 Mu69 (Ultima Thule)

Strange speck of light in the picture sequence of the approach to 2014 Mu69 (Ultima Thule)



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In the picture sequence which was taken by New Horizons during the approach to Ultima Thule on the 3rd of Dec there can be seen a speck of light in the lower left corner, not as bright as 2014 MU69 but clearly visible.


Source: Here (German) or here (English), NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Laboratory / Henry Throop

Is there any theory what may have caused this signal? A particle from the probe itself, coincidentally passing in front of the lens? A variable star? A small object in the right distance and angle to be glimpsed upon by New Horizons? I think the latter would be an astronomically improbable event…

Here are some single frames of that image sequence, the speck is clearly visible on the 3rd of December.


It's probably a cosmic ray strike, a common artifact on New Horizons images. The image, however, is of very poor quality which makes it difficult to analyse the exact nature of the spot. I'll go into this more at the end of the answer.

Possibilities:

  1. Cosmic ray hit
    A common occurance (see below); the most likely cause without evidence to the contrary.

  2. Background star (e.g. a nova)
    Novæ (and variable stars) brighten and dim over several days. Were this a nova it would have shown in images from previous and later days.

  3. Kuiper belt object
    To not show in images from adjacent days it would need large relative motion and thus a sizable trail would be expected (none is evident).

  4. Aliens
    Possible? Yes. Likely? Far, far, from it. Not worth serious consideration.

Here's the New Horizons team's standard disclaimer:

This image contains one or more objects whose brightness exceeds the detector's saturation level. This sometimes produces a "tail" of bright and/or dark pixels to the right of the object. You may also notice a faint vertical white stripe passing through the saturated object; this is an artifact called "frame transfer smear" and is associated with the incomplete removal of signal produced when the image is transferred from the optically active region of the detector to the storage region of the detector. If the target is badly saturated, you may also notice a faint, X-shaped feature nearly centered on the object; these are optical diffraction spikes.

This image contains one or more streaks associated with cosmic rays passing through the detector. Nearly every LORRI image has at least one cosmic ray strike, but most are "single pixel" events (i.e., they only appear to be in single pixel and can easily be mistaken for stars). But sometimes a cosmic ray is energetic enough that it leaves a "trail" as it passes through the LORRI detector.

Example of cosmic ray hit and saturation trails:

Source: here (via "Learn more… " link), NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Note that despite being a PNG, JPEG compression artifacts can be seen in this image

The frame in question:

Source: Frame K-29 of this image taken from here, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Henry Throop
Enlargement below is from frame K-29 of this image

The image in question is almost certainly a stacked composite of ~10 source images and appears to have been 2×2 binned (compare here). To make faint objects more visible, the image was also likely contrast-enhanced. The image also shows clear signs of lossy compression and quantization (from 12 bits per pixel to ~5), see enlargement below. While these are (mostly) acceptable choices for the image's intended use it tends to obscure detail from the original images.

Crop showing artifacts:

Looking at the spot in question (enlargement below) a couple of things are noticable:

It is compact and relatively dim. Its overall size in pixels is about half that of the stars and of MU69. In addition, the drop-off in brightness moving away from its center is much more rapid than for the other objects. This is consistent with a bright but compact object appearing in only one image in the K-29 stack.

This object also exhibits a less-blurry structure with two distinctly brighter spots or lines. This is consistent with spray from a cosmic ray hit.

Crop showing mystery spot:

All in all, I think a cosmic ray hit is the most likely explanation. Given the very poor quality of the image in question though it's difficult to give a definitive answer. To make a proper determination one would need access to the yet-to-be-released raw imagery.


I've seen a paper with a more thorough discussion of New Horizons image artifiacts but don't seem to have saved a copy. I'll add references from it when I track it down.


Looking closely, the spot has roughly same slightly noncircular, diffuse, extended shape and size as 2014 MU69 (optical or kinematic artifact) which would not happen from a cosmic ray or hot pixel.

This could be a real object, and simply much closer to New Horizons than MU69 is. That could certainly account for the object being visible on one day only. If its 10x closer than MU69 it can be 100x smaller than MU69 and still have a similar apparent magnitude, and the number of asteroids increases rapidly with decreasing size.

Left is object in question, right is MU69.

above: purely unscientific processing in order to perform "blobology": OP's image, blown up and then cropped twice (to get rid of the red arrow) then just plotted in python https://pastebin.com/8KWBHqnf


New Horizons Captures Incredible Image Sequence of Ultima Thule

Mission scientists created this “departure movie” from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly after the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019. The central frame of this sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The object’s illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera’s signal level – but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent. This is the farthest movie of any object in our Solar System ever made by any spacecraft. The images reveal an outline of the “hidden” portion of the Ultima Thule that was not illuminated by the Sun as the spacecraft zipped by, but can be “traced out” because it blocked the view to background stars also in the image. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory

An evocative new image sequence from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft offers a departing view of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) nicknamed Ultima Thule – the target of its New Year’s 2019 flyby and the most distant world ever explored.

These aren’t the last Ultima Thule images New Horizons will send back to Earth – in fact, many more are to come — but they are the final views New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on Jan. 1. The images were taken nearly 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point.

“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute. “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”

Scientists’ understanding of Ultima Thule has changed as they review additional data. The “old view” in this illustration is based on images taken within a day of New Horizons’ closest approach to the Kuiper Belt object on Jan. 1, 2019, suggesting that both of “Ultima” (the larger section, or lobe) and “Thule” (the smaller) were nearly perfect spheres just barely touching each other. But as more data were analyzed, including several highly evocative crescent images taken nearly 10 minutes after closest approach, a “new view” of the object’s shape emerged. Ultima more closely resembles a “pancake,” and Thule a “dented walnut.” The bottom view is the team’s current best shape model for Ultima Thule, but still carries some uncertainty as an entire region was essentially hidden from view, and not illuminated by the Sun, during the New Horizons flyby. The dashed blue lines span the uncertainty in that hemisphere, which shows that Ultima Thule could be either flatter than, or not as flat as, depicted in this figure. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule – with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments – had observers calling it a “snowman.” However, more analysis of approach images and these new departure images have changed that view, in part by revealing an outline of the portion of the KBO that was not illuminated by the Sun, but could be “traced out” as it blocked the view to background stars.

Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or “lobes”) of Ultima Thule are not spherical. The larger lobe, nicknamed “Ultima,” more closely resembles a giant pancake and the smaller lobe, nicknamed “Thule,” is shaped like a dented walnut.

“We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view,” Stern said. “It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule’s shape is flatter, like a pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the Sun.”

The departure images were taken from a different angle than the approach photos and reveal complementary information on Ultima Thule’s shape. The central frame of the sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The object’s illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera’s signal level – but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent.


This animation depicts a shape model of Ultima Thule created by the New Horizons science team based on its analysis of all the pre-flyby images sent to Earth so far. The first half of the movie mimics the view from the New Horizons spacecraft as it approached Ultima Thule and has the “snowman” shape that was so frequently mentioned in the days surrounding the New Year’s 2019 flyby. The movie then rotates to a side-view that illustrates what New Horizons might have seen had its cameras been pointing toward Ultima Thule only a few minutes after closest approach. While that wasn’t the case, mission scientists have been able to piece together a model of this side-view, which has been at least partially confirmed by a set of crescent images of Ultima Thule (link). There is still considerable uncertainty in the sizes of “Ultima” (the larger section, or lobe) and “Thule” (the smaller) in the vertical dimension, but it’s now clear that Ultima looks more like a pancake than a sphere, and that Thule is also very non-spherical. The rotation in this animation is not the object’s actual rotation, but is used purely to illustrate its shape. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Many background stars are also seen in the individual images watching which stars “blinked out” as the object passed in front them allowed scientists to outline the shape of both lobes, which could then be compared to a model assembled from analyzing pre-flyby images and ground-based telescope observations. “The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images,” says Simon Porter, a New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, who leads the shape-modeling effort.

“While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected,” added Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system.”

The images in this sequence will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week. Raw images from the camera are posted to the site each Friday.


Mission scientists created this “departure movie” from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly after the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019. The central frame of this sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The object’s illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera’s signal level – but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent. This is the farthest movie of any object in our Solar System ever made by any spacecraft. The images reveal an outline of the “hidden” portion of the Ultima Thule that was not illuminated by the Sun as the spacecraft zipped by, but can be “traced out” because it blocked the view to background stars also in the image. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory


5 Answers 5

Remember that Ultima Thule is rotating. Some parts not visible in the images downlinked so far will be in other images yet to come down. But the rotation axis appears to point roughly—very roughly—at the sun, so parts of Ultima Thule remained in darkness for the entire encounter.

It's risky pointing the camera back at Ultima Thule for recession images. For the Pluto encounter, the position, size, and trajectory of Pluto and the spacecraft's trajectory were known well enough to put New Horizons in Pluto's shadow (a "Sun occultation") for those recession images. This cancelled the danger of getting direct or single-reflection sunlight on the camera's focal plane, which can burn out pixels. Ultima Thule's size and ephemeris were much less well known, making a Sun occultation a very low probability and the risk of burning out part of the imaging instrument much higher. Since the New Horizons team is thinking about encountering another Kuiper Belt object, they would be reticent to damage their imager.

That's pretty dark. I'm not sure usable photos can be made of the night side of Ultima Thule.

I've looked through the LORRI images taken of Pluto's night side (page 124-109 of the photo gallery). I found no nightside images with good surface detail.

This is an example of an image with longer exposure (400 ms):

It has some variation in brightness, but it's of the "there might be a continent here" variety. Too vague to give much information.

The pre-encounter photos of this region have much better detail. This is helped by Pluto's 6-day rotation period, so all of the surface could be imaged in sunlight.

The best photos we have of Pluto have been stitched together here:

Mission scientists created this "departure movie" from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly after the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019. The central frame of this sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The object’s illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera’s signal level – but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent. This is the farthest movie of any object in our Solar System ever made by any spacecraft. The images reveal an outline of the “hidden” portion of the Ultima Thule that was not illuminated by the Sun as the spacecraft zipped by, but can be “traced out” because it blocked the view to background stars also in the image.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory


A Closer Look at Ultima Thule

“We think we are looking at the most primitive object ever imaged by a spacecraft,” said Jeff Moore (NASA Ames) at today’s Ultima Thule press conference. Moore, New Horizons geology and geophysics lead, went on to describe the process of innumerable particles growing into nodes amidst growing low velocity collision and interaction. We are truly looking at primordial materials with Ultima Thule, which is now revealed as a contact binary. Have a look.

Image: This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Bear in mind that New Horizons was working with a Sun 1,900 times fainter than a sunny day on Earth, as mission principal investigator Alan Stern reminded the audience when he unveiled the image above. “It’s a snowman, not a bowling pin,” joked Stern as the image was displayed. Bear in mind as well that these early images are just the beginning. The mission team has now downloaded less than 1 percent of the data available on the spacecraft’s solid state recorders.

One of Jeff Moore’s slides:

And here’s the slide Moore showed to illustrate the process of accretion:

Putting these two lobes together would, Moore said, be gentle enough that “…if you were in a car collision at this speed you wouldn’t bother to fill out the insurance forms.” These are high-Sun images, meaning we see little shadow, but the Sun angle will change as we move into later views at higher resolution. Even so, note the absence of obvious impact craters, and the mottled suggestions of hills and ridges. Also note the brightness of the ‘neck’ between the lobes.

Image: The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface. At left is an enhanced color image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. The center image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Ultima Thule’s rotation period is currently pegged at 15 hours, plus or minus an hour. The object turns out to be red, as expected. As to reflectivity, deputy project scientist Kathy Olkin (SwRI) pointed out that the brightest areas reflect about 13 percent of incident sunlight, the darkest areas only 6 percent. Ultima Thule is, in other words, very dark, as dark as potting soil, Olkin added, with significant variation across the surface.

Comments on this entry are closed.

The image is reminiscent of artistic renditions depicting Theia’s impact with our ancient Earth.

Your comment made me think the following: I understand it would be impossible, but isn’t it fun to imagine a habitable-zone Earth-plus-Theia-sized pair “colliding” at such low speeds early on in a solar-system’s formation, and retaining such a bi-lobed composite shape, even while intelligent life and civilisations arose on it/them? Imagine the geo-political ramifications, not to mention the cartographers’ difficulties! (But I suppose we shouldn’t try too hard to imagine the geological and meteorological consequences if we want to continue to suspend disbelief.)

I predict bi-lobed worlds will appear soon in sci-fi, now that the world’s attention has been drawn to MU69.

Sorry, but no. As the mass rises the asymmetries are removed by gravitational collapse. Indeed that’s why this is used as one of the criteria for labeling a body as a planet.

yes, hence my prefacing the whole thing with “I understand it would be impossible, but…”

Obviously I read that too quickly and missed the key words. My bad.

There is Rocheworld by Robert Forward, published in 1982 (and later as Flight of the Dragonfly in 1984):

The exoworlds orbit Barnard’s Star and a human crewed mission goes there via laser-driven light sail.

Roceworld was very entertaining with as much hard science as anyone could want in an interstellar story. The two worlds were not quite touching but did share a common atmosphere. I thought that the author did not explore interpersonal issues within the crew that would undoubtedly arise during a multiple decades mission but, otherwise, it was a great read.

I respect the heck out of Robert Forward, but the characters in his SF novels tended to lack a certain amount of realism. His novels were obviously vehicles to display his scientific and technological ideas. Werner von Braun did the same thing with a novel he wrote in 1952 about a manned expedition to Mars.

So exciting to see world grow from discovery, to a few pixels to a more coherent object!
As ever, I think about uses for new things we find and I wonder how useful these little frozen chunks are to the Inner Solar System?
From Belt colonies to Terraforming Mars to feeding Earths’ insatiable desire for resources, is there “cold gold” out there?

Some day the society beyond science fiction and hardcore space fans are going to recognize the immense value of having billions (trillions?) of floating chunks of raw resources floating all over our Sol system. We just need to get beyond Earth in both the literal and sociological sense.

The most powerful thing in the visible universe is not a billion sol black hole, as far as we can see it is the human mind and what it discovers.

Almost makes me think of dough… planet dough.

I seem too see two faces, one in the smaller and one in the larger.

That’s what your ancient hardwired genetics are designed to do.

So Ultima Thule is now being known as Ultima and Thule, to differentiate the two connected lobes.

Image Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins University APL, Southwest Research Institute

Explanation: On January 1 New Horizons encountered the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule. Some 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun, Ultima Thule is the most distant world ever explored by a spacecraft from Earth.

This historic image, the highest resolution image released so far, was made at a range of about 28,000 kilometers only 30 minutes before the New Horizons closest approach.

Likely the result of a gentle collision shortly after the birth of the Solar System, Ultima Thule is revealed to be a contact binary, two connected sphere-like shapes held in contact by mutual gravity.

Dubbed separately by the science team Ultima and Thule, the larger lobe Ultima is about 19 kilometers in diameter. Smaller Thule is 14 kilometers across.

Strange , how the objects were designated Mu-69 ,one of the lanthanide series of chemical elements with atomic numbers .

If those objects weren’t fused , damned if they don’t resemble my thought of some binary pulsars .

Emily Lakdawalla • January 2, 2019

MU69 appears as a bi-lobed baby comet in latest New Horizons images

How do contact binaries form?

The tiny world 2014 MU69 is far behind New Horizons now and no longer visible to its cameras. Now, New Horizons’ task is to return its precious data to Earth. The process will take 20 months, but the best images should all arrive between now and the end of February. Some early ones have come down from the spacecraft in the hours since the flyby. These are not the best we will get, but they already show us much about MU69: this is probably what comets look like, before they become comets. (Note: the press briefing is still going on I’ll continue to add images to this post throughout the morning.)

Two statements from NASA have left me rather confused. One, they stated that Ultima Thule is the first contact binary object ever visited by spacecraft. What about the bilobed comet 67P? Two, they stated that there appears to be no visible craters. What about the fascinating feature I call Occator Junior(due to its striking resemblance to Ceres’ Occator crater on the smaller of the two lobes? To me, it appears to be an obvious depression of some kind, or: am I seeing things improperly due to the shapes of the two contrasting features of a low albedo “ring” exterior to the region containing the two high albedo spots?

On the first issue they are obviously wrong. Comet 67P is a contact binary, as is Halley’s Comet, as just two of the more prominent examples.

On the latter issue, the “no craters” declaration is likely premature based on the quality of the images we have at present.

Yes I wondered too about ‘first contact binary’ we have seen many images up close of Churyumov–Gerasimenko, Halley, 19P Borelly and 103P Hartley.
Elakdawalla of Planetary society got it right, public relations person of NASA is a fool.

I wonder if, due to the government shutdown, NASA didn’t exactly have the cream of the crop onboard when it came to getting such facts straight? Because anyone with more than a casual knowledge of comets and planetoids knows how many of the ones we have seen up close are contact binaries.

Useless Knowledge Begets New Horizons

Fundamental discoveries don’t always have practical uses, but they have soul-saving applications.

By Bret Stephens, Opinion Columnist

What an unusual piece by Stephens.

Of course the NYT has to turn around and do a piece on the very people who just placed the first lander and rover (and ecosystem) on the lunar farside questioning the value of such a historic mission:

The muted reaction was a sign that the novelty of the country’s space missions has faded. But the coverage also appeared to reflect political and economic anxieties at a time when Mr. Xi’s government is trying to negotiate a truce in the trade war with the United States and respond to worrisome cracks in the economy.

The NYT just can’t write a story about China (or Russia) without torturing the narrative to add a lot of spin. Many may like the NYT but, for me, its credibility is nil unless they are reporting on things like sports scores.

Most likely China is doing in one key area what the Soviet Union used to do when reporting on one of their space missions: Being very careful about what is made public in case something is going wrong, so they don’t look bad.

In any event, apparently it isn’t just the USA where the populace does not know how much money goes into their space program compared to other federal agencies.

I am not seeing where the NYT is questioning the value of the lander. They do quote a person who is ambivalent – pride in the landing, but concerned about the cost. The Apollo program was similarly, and far more publicly, questioned about the cost (“whitey on the Moon”). I doubt that the Chinese lander was even remotely as large a fraction of GDP than the Apollo program. If they land taikonauts on the Moon, that might be a different story. I hope I am still around to see that.

OT. What is the explanation for the “orange” color of the light in the returned images?

They like red in China? Seriously, surely they’re using a full color camera, but the green and blue seem to have been filtered or edited out. It could have been a political choice.

(No offense intended, and I hope none is taken. This landing [and the earlier placement of a communications satellite in the Lunar L2 zone] by the Chinese is a major accomplishment.)

Yes Chinese space program is done a limited budget. They use unusual means to get the hardware built also.

The point is, they are doing it. Hard to fathom that in all the decades of lunar exploration, they were the very first to soft land on the lunar farside.

Yes, I know the reasons, but you know it could have been done ages ago if scientific exploration were the true goal. Astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmidt even seriously offered a plan to put Apollo 17 on the farside, Tsiolkovsky crater to be exact.

And this interesting early plan for using the Saturn 5 rocket stage as a communications relay for the lunar farside:

I wonder how close its rotation rate (15 hours) is to disruption. Unless there was a braking mechanism at work, it would seem that its angular momentum from its formation would be largely conserved.

It’s interesting how two bodies shed their angular momentum not only until contact, but even further, several times below breakup speed. Solar tides? Also how it has got it’s high inclination despite pristine form.

Correction, obliquity of course.

Less than one week ago, Ultima (and) Thule was just a dot or blob of light at best. Now they can make GIFs and 3D images out of what New Horizons has returned to Earth.

Ultima Thule Rotation Gif

Image Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins University APL, Southwest Research Institute

Explanation: Ultima Thule is the most distant world explored by a spacecraft from Earth. In the dim light 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun, the New Horizons spacecraft captured these two frames 38 minutes apart as it sped toward the Kuiper belt world on January 1 at 51,000 kilometers per hour. A contact binary, the two lobes of Ultima Thule rotate together once every 15 hours or so.

Shown as a blinking gif, the rotation between the frames produces a tantalizing 3D perspective of the most primitive world ever seen. Dubbed separately by the science team Ultima and Thule, the larger lobe Ultima, is about 19 kilometers in diameter. Smaller Thule is 14 kilometers across.

Thank you for sharing these wonderful images! What a truly amazing accomplishment reaching this object has been for the space program. I had a question for you or anyone else on here who might know. I have seen descriptions in the popular press of Ultima Thule (UT) looking like a “red snowman” (see link below). Are any of these images representative of what UT might look like to future human explorers? What might UT look like to human explorers assuming they approach it as closely as New Horizons did?

Last week, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by a small object in the Kuiper Belt, the most distant flyby by a spacecraft to date. Jeff Foust reports on the scene at mission control for the flyby and the science that will come.

Pluto Probe Encounters a Pristine World in the Solar System’s Suburbs

Ultima Thule, the most-distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, is revealing our solar system’s deepest history—and, just maybe, revolutionizing planetary science

By Corey S. Powell on January 8, 2019

The history of the solar system is a dish best served cold. And it is so very cold on Ultima Thule.

That is the message beaming back to Earth from NASA’s New Horizons probe now that it has completed its historic exploration of a small body in the Kuiper Belt, the sprawling population of dwarf planets and cometlike objects out beyond Neptune.

When New Horizons flew past at 12:33 AM Eastern time on January 1, Ultima was a hair over four billion miles from the sun. It is by far the most distant object ever visited by spacecraft, and correspondingly one of the coldest: about 35 kelvins, or nearly 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

At such low temperatures, Ultima (more formally known by its scientific designation, 2014 MU69) preserves its initial, ancient composition. Ultima is also cold in another, more specialized and intriguing way. It is dynamically cold, part of what’s known as the “cold classical” Kuiper Belt, meaning that it circles the sun in a settled orbit that was undisturbed by all the chaotic events that buffeted Earth and other planets as they came together more than four billion years ago.

“We’re looking at one of the first building blocks that came together to form the planets and moons,” says Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “It looks like somebody left it out in the back of God’s freezer for the last four-and-a-half billion years.”

At the moment there are only three papers on ArXiv with Ultima Thule in their titles – and this is the first one that is not speculation about what the New Horizons deep space probe will find there:

Overview of initial results from the reconnaissance flyby of a Kuiper Belt planetesimal: 2014 MU69

S.A. Stern, J.R. Spencer, H.A. Weaver, C.B. Olkin, J.M. Moore, W. Grundy, R. Gladstone, W.B. McKinnon, D.P. Cruikshank, L.A. Young, H.A. Elliott, A.J. Verbiscer, J.Wm. Parker, the New Horizons Team

The centerpiece objective of the NASA New Horizons first Kuiper Extended Mission (KEM-1) was the close flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object KBO) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. On 1 Jan 2019 this flyby culminated, making the first close observations of a small KBO. Initial post flyby trajectory reconstruction indicated the spacecraft approached to within 3536 km of MU69 at 5:33:19 UT.

Here we summarize the earliest results obtained from that successful flyby. At the time of this submission, only 4 days of data down-link from the flyby were available well over an order of magnitude more data will be down-linked by the time of this Lunar and Planetary Science Conference presentation in 2019 March. Therefore many additional results not available at the time of this abstract submission will be presented in this review talk.

Comments: 2 pages, 2 figures

Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)

Cite as: arXiv:1901.02578 [astro-ph.EP]
(or arXiv:1901.02578v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

From: Alan Stern [view email]

[v1] Wed, 9 Jan 2019 01:41:17 UTC (1,569 KB)

That dual column format 2 page report looks like an abstract headed for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March. While some of Centauri Dreams topics will not be covered there, an abundance of “lunar and planetary” accomplishments will be. The annual is held in the Woodlands area outside of Houston,TX on the north side nearer to the Bush Airport than Hobby. (18 to 22 March 2019 – number 50!).

Emily Lakdawalla • January 15, 2019

New Horizons is back in action after going quiet for a period of solar conjunction following the 1 January flyby of 2014 MU69 (informally nicknamed “Ultima Thule”). The spacecraft is returning new data, as exemplified by these images, shared this morning in a tweet by principal investigator Alan Stern.

The pictures were taken before closest approach and don’t add anything much in the way of news about the world, but: new images, woohoo.

Better-quality, high-resolution images of 2014 MU69 should be available in late February, according to Stern.

New Data: Ultima Thule Surprisingly Flat

Illustration Credit: NASA, JHU’s APL, SwRI

Explanation: Ultima Thule is not the object humanity thought that it was last month. When the robotic New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past the distant asteroid Ultima Thule (officially 2014 MU69) in early January, early images showed two circular lobes that when most simply extrapolated to 3D were thought to be, roughly, spheres.

However, analyses of newly beamed-back images — including many taken soon after closest approach — shows eclipsed stars re-appearing sooner than expected.

The only explanation possible is that this 30-km long Kuiper belt object has a different 3D shape than believed only a few weeks ago.

Specifically, as shown in the featured illustration, it now appears that the larger lobe — Ultima — is more similar to a fluffy pancake than a sphere, while the smaller lobe — Thule — resembles a dented walnut. The remaining uncertainty in the outlines are shown by the dashed blue lines.

The new shape information indicates that gravity — which contracts more massive bodies into spheres — played perhaps less of a role in contouring the lobes of Ultima Thule than previously thought. The New Horizons spacecraft continued on to Ultima Thule after passing Pluto in mid-2015. New data and images are still being received.

Makes you wonder what else we will learn about our distant celestial neighbor as the data slowly trickles back.


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New Horizons Approaches Ultima Thule

NASA&rsquos New Horizons spacecraft is preparing for a New Year&rsquos flyby of the most distant object ever visited.

Still, the New Horizons team is confident that it has figured out where it will be.

&ldquoI think we're good,&rdquo said Marc W. Buie, an astronomer working to pin down Ultima Thule&rsquos position. &ldquoI think we're better than good.&rdquo

In the last couple of years, there were several fortuitous times when Ultima Thule passed in front of a distant star, causing the starlight to vanish briefly, what astronomers call an occultation. That tells them that Ultima Thule was along the line of sight between Earth and the star.

Using the information from the occultations, the spacecraft navigators believe they have calculated the time of the nearest approach to Ultima Thule to within six or seven seconds, Dr. Buie said.

That is better than was possible for Pluto, even though astronomers have been studying Pluto for decades. &ldquoWe had a lot of trouble with Pluto, believe it or not,&rdquo Dr. Buie said.

Those occultation observations also showed that the object is not a sphere, but rather elongated like a long potato or perhaps two bodies touching each other.

Image

New Horizons itself was able to spot Ultima Thule beginning in August, although as no more than a speck of light until this weekend. As the spacecraft approached, scientists hoped to spot a rhythmic brightening and dimming of Ultima Thule, which would reveal how fast it is spinning. Instead, the brightness seems to have remained steady the whole time.

&ldquoIt&rsquos really puzzling, because we know the shape is irregular,&rdquo Dr. Stern said.

While the partial federal government shutdown has little direct effect on the flyby &mdash 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 &mdash 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&rsquos 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.

&ldquoWe&rsquore very confident in the spacecraft, and we&rsquore very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima,&rdquo said Dr. Stern, the principal investigator for the mission. &ldquoBut I&rsquod be kidding you if I didn&rsquot tell you that we&rsquore also on pins and needles to see out how this turns out. We only get one shot at it.&rdquo

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 &mdash which takes six hours to reach Earth &mdash 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.

&ldquoWe are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule,&rdquo Dr. Stern said.


Ultima Thule’s ‘Lobes’ Are Not Spherical, New Horizons Images Show

A series of images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft contains important scientific information about the true shape of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). These images are the final views New Horizons captured of Ultima Thule as it raced away at over 31,000 mph (50,000 kmh) on January 1, 2019.

New Horizons team members created this ‘departure movie’ from 14 different images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument shortly after the spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019. The central frame of this sequence was taken at 05:42:42 GMT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 km) beyond Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth. The object’s illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera’s signal level — but the team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent. This is the farthest movie of any object in our Solar System ever made by any spacecraft. The images reveal an outline of the ‘hidden’ portion of the Ultima Thule that was not illuminated by the Sun as the spacecraft zipped by, but can be ‘traced out’ because it blocked the view to background stars also in the image. Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute / National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule — with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments (lobes) — had observers calling it a ‘snowman.’

However, more analysis of approach images and these new images have changed that view, in part by revealing an outline of the portion of the object that was not illuminated by the Sun, but could be ‘traced out’ as it blocked the view to background stars.

Now New Horizons team members can confirm that the two lobes of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

The larger lobe, Ultima, more closely resembles a giant pancake and the smaller lobe, Thule, is shaped like a dented walnut.

“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth. Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery,” said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, a researcher at the Southwest Research Institute.

Scientists’ understanding of Ultima Thule has changed as they review additional data. The ‘old view’ in this illustration is based on images taken within a day of New Horizons’ closest approach to the object on January 1, 2019, suggesting that both of ‘Ultima’ (the larger lobe) and ‘Thule’ (the smaller lobe) were nearly perfect spheres just barely touching each other. But as more data were analyzed, including several highly evocative crescent images taken nearly 10 min after closest approach, a ‘new view’ of the object’s shape emerged. Ultima more closely resembles a ‘pancake,’ and Thule a ‘dented walnut.’ The bottom view is the team’s current best shape model for Ultima Thule, but still carries some uncertainty as an entire region was essentially hidden from view, and not illuminated by the Sun, during the New Horizons flyby. The dashed blue lines span the uncertainty in that hemisphere, which shows that Ultima Thule could be either flatter than, or not as flat as, depicted in this figure. Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute.

“We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view.”

“It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule’s shape is flatter, like a pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the Sun.”

“While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected,” said New Horizons project scientist Dr. Hal Weaver, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

“This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System.”


12/31/2018 – Ephemeris – New Year 2019 – A new solar system body is being explored right now!

Ephemeris for New Years Eve, Monday, December 31st. The Sun will rise at 8:20. It’ll be up for 8 hours and 51 minutes, setting at 5:11. The Moon, 2 days past last quarter, will rise at 3:54 tomorrow morning.

Later tonight the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto and its retinue of moons, will fly by Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. It’s probably an odd looking contact binary body with lobes 12 ½ and 11 miles (20 & 18 km) in diameter. That’s the guess as of a week ago. It will pass this body by 1,366 miles (2200 km), traveling at over 32 thousand miles an hour (52,000 kph). The spacecraft will pass closest approach at 33 minutes after the ball drops in Times Square. Nearly 4 hours later it will phone home. We won’t receive that message here on Earth until 10:28 a.m. due to the over 6 hours of time it takes the radio signal to reach Earth. We should get the first images by tomorrow night. The New Horizons spacecraft was built and is flown by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHAPL) is collaboration with NASA and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.

Addendum

The Trajectory and position of New Horizons as it approached 2014 MU69 two months ago showing some of the KBOs recently discovered near its path. Credit JHAPL.

Silhouette of KBO 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule) created by occultation timings on July 17, 2017 from southern Argentina. Credit NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker.

A cool app to follow New Horizons in real-time or to preview its passage of Ultima Thule is NASA’s Eyes: https://eyes.nasa.gov/.

NASA’s Eyes screen Captured as a real-time simulation as I write this post. At this time two instruments are active, LORRI the long-range imager and ALICE the Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer. Click on the image to enlarge. Credit NASA/JPL


New Horizons finds Ultima Thule has an unexpected, flattened shape

Images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft when it flew by an object the size of a large metropolitan area at the frontier of the solar system Jan. 1 have revealed the miniature world has a more flattened shape than the flyby’s initial pictures suggested.

The oddly-shaped object in the Kuiper Belt, located a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, became the most distant planetary body ever explored when the New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Jan. 1 at a relative velocity of roughly 32,000 mph, or 9 miles per second (14 kilometers per second).

Nicknamed Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft’s first target after visiting Pluto in 2015 was revealed to be a dual-lobed object as the probe beamed its first close-up images back to Earth after the New Year’s Day encounter.

But instead of having the shape of a snowman — with one spherical lobe larger than the other — scientists now believe Ultima Thule’s two sections have a more flattened shape.

The larger of the two lobes — nicknamed Ultima — appears to be shaped like a giant pancake, or a pebble that could be thrown to skip across water. The smaller lobe, nicknamed Thule, resembles a dented walnut, according to mission scientists.

“We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view,” said Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, in a Feb. 8 statement. “It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule’s shape is flatter, like a pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the sun.”

In the first few days after the flyby, scientists said they thought the object formed when two objects — which originally formed separately as the solar system was born 4.5 billion years ago — merged at a slow speed.

Scientists used a series of images captured by New Horizons as it departed Ultima Thule to estimate the object’s shape from the side. Imagery previously released showed Ultima Thule’s sunlit side from New Horizons on approach, but the departure sequence reveals a crescent Ultima Thule.

The shadowed side of Ultima Thule traced a path through a background star field, briefly blocking the light from the stars as New Horizons completed the flyby.

“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth,” Stern said. “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”

The center frame of the 14 individual images used to create the video was taken by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, telescopic instrument at 12:42 a.m. EST (0542 GMT) on Jan. 1, nine minutes after the probe’s closest approach to Ultima Thule. At that time, New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) from the object.

The telescopic camera was set to take images with relatively long exposure times due to the low light levels reflected off the crescent Ultima Thule, causing the individual frames to be blurred.

“While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system.”

Imagery and other data collected by New Horizons at Ultima Thule continues streaming back to Earth at about 1,000 bits per second, from a distance of more than 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers). The final data from the flyby is expected to arrive on Earth in September 2020.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


A Biosignature Plus for K-Class Stars

Kepler-62 is a reminder of how interesting K-class stars (like Alpha Centauri B) can be. Here we find two worlds that are conceivably in the habitable zone of their star, with Kepler 62f, imagined in the image below, orbiting the host star every 267 days. Kepler-62e, the bright object depicted to the right of the planet, may orbit within the inner edge of the habitable zone. Both planets are larger than Earth, Kepler 62f about 40 percent so, while Kepler-62e is 60 percent larger.

Image: The artist’s concept depicts Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun, located about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/Tim Pyle.

We actually have five planets here, all known thanks to Kepler to transit their star. The two of habitable zone interest may or may not be solid planets — their masses are not well constrained through either radial velocity or transit timing methods, so we are a long way from knowing whether life might actually form on either. Kepler-62e may well turn out to be a gaseous mini-Neptune, based on its radius. As for the host, Kepler-62 is a K-class main sequence star approximately 70 percent the mass of the Sun, and about 7 billion years old.

K-class stars, particularly those closer than Kepler-62, are seeing a flurry of interest as potential homes for life. In fact, Giada Arney (NASA GSFC) sees them as “in a ‘sweet spot’ between Sun-analog stars and M stars,” for reasons that become clear when you compare them to their smaller and cooler cousins. M-dwarfs are ubiquitous, comprising perhaps 80 percent of all stars in the galaxy, but they’re also given to severe flare activity especially in their early years, enough so that there is a real possibility of damage to the atmosphere and loss of liquid water on the surface.

Add to this problems like tidal locking that could afflict planets in the close-in habitable zone around a cool M-dwarf and by comparison, K-class stars have particular advantages. Arney’s analysis of K star habitability and biosignatures appears in Astrophysical Journal Letters, and it makes the case that a biosignature like the simultaneous presence of oxygen and methane will likely be stronger around a K star than a star like the Sun.

To examine the issue, the scientist developed a computer model simulating planetary atmospheres that could be subjected to conditions around a variety of host stars. Simulations of planetary spectra from these atmospheres could then be produced for analysis. Arney’s work shows that a habitable zone planet circling a K star is one that allows methane to build up in the atmosphere because the host star’s ultraviolet does not generate the highly reactive oxygen that destroys methane as quickly as a star like the Sun. With methane lasting longer within an oxygenated atmosphere, our chance of detecting disequilibrium between the gases increases.

We can add in another factor (one that also favors M-dwarfs): The contrast in brightness between the Sun and our Earth would, to a distant observer, be about 10 billion times, making Earth a very tricky world to observe. Whereas the contrast between a habitable zone planet and a K star is closer to 1 billion. That makes nearby K stars interesting places for future biosignature searches, allowing shorter observing times to achieve a given signal to noise ratio. The author thinks we should keep these advantages in mind as we plan future exoplanet observatories.

The paper lists some interesting targets:

These simulations suggest that nearby mid-to-late K dwarfs such as 61 Cyg A, and 61 Cyg B, Epsilon Indi, Groombridge 1618, and HD 156026 may be particularly excellent targets for biosignature searches on exoplanets. In addition to the “K dwarf advantage” for biosignatures, these stars can offer access to a wide range of wavelengths for HZ planets even with IWA [Inner Working Angle] constraints. 61 Cyg A, 61 Cyg B, Epsilon Indi, and Groombridge 1618 provide higher or comparable S/N to Tau Ceti, the closest G dwarf other than the Sun and Proxima Centauri A. In particular, 61 Cyg A and 61 Cyg B, which are at a similar distance as Tau Ceti (3.6 pc), offer S/N that is 1.6–1.7 times better in the same integration time. HD 156026 is at a similar distance as 82 Eridani (6 pc), and it offers 1.4 times better S/N compared to this G6V star.

But there is this challenge, as alluded to above: Habitable zone planets around K stars will orbit closer to their host than comparable planets around G-class stars like the Sun. That could mean that such planets fall inside the Inner Working Angle (IWA) of future observatories. The IWA defines the smallest separation between planet and star at which the planet can be resolved. Direct imaging telescopes, including the future LUVOIR and HabEx may not, then, be able to see the planet at the needed wavelengths. The paper considers starshade and coronagraph designs that could solve this problem.

The paper is Arney, “The K Dwarf Advantage for Biosignatures on Directly Imaged Exoplanets,” Astrophysical Journal Letters Vol. 873, No. 1 (6 March 2019). Abstract / full text.


Watch the video: WE FOUND A SUPER CLEAR CREEK and MONSTER FISH!! (August 2022).