Astronomy

What is so special about the Ultima Thule passed by New Horizon spacecraft?

What is so special about the Ultima Thule passed by New Horizon spacecraft?



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I read that the New Horizon spacecraft passed by the Ultima Thule. I also got to know that it is a flat, snowman-shaped rock.

What is so special about it?


  • Ultima Thule is the first small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) we have visited. For the first time, we can see a KBO as more than a tiny point of light in a telescope.
  • it seems to be flat, rather than roughly round. This is really unusual (we've never seen that shape before in planets, moons, asteroids etc.).

New Horizon's latest image of Ultima Thule

They had an hour special on NOVA last night covering the process. Quite a challenge identifying and tracking the little bugger!

#28 TOMDEY

And frozen for posterity! Tom

#29 Arthur L

A M A Z I N G ! ! !

Where shall we go next??

where can we find information about the next target? I have to think this has been decided already.

This is exploring at its finest. We are not looking for something (like life) but are just looking

to see what is out there. After Pluto and now this, we are all eager to get another peek.

#30 Araguaia

They haven't decided the next target yet. The Ultima flyby probably bent the trajectory a bit, and they will have to determine this to figure out where they can now go. That will probably have to wait until the spacecraft emerges from behind the Sun.

Also, because of the very small delta-V they can impart with the fuel left, it will have to be a target many years out to have a hope of intercepting. There is plenty of time to look for one. For the next few months they will be downloading data from Ultima anyway.

#31 Chucke

I think I heard in one of the press conferences that it may be a year before they decide on the next target.

#32 Arthur L

Thanks very much. It is all gravy after Pluto. Another probe just keeps on giving.

#33 csrlice12

Cool. looks like something from a lava lamp.

#34 Keith Rivich

Man that's cool! I wonder if it will accrete more material and become a larger body, maybe even a true planet, one day?

Nope. Not enough material out there.

Note there are no visible impact craters. nothing to hit but empty space.

#35 erick86

What I find most incredible about the recent photographs from New Horizons is how closely they reveal the objects shape to match what was already speculated in 2017 after watching Ultima Thule pass in front of a star. The bi-lobe structure was already 'known', and only now confirmed. Amazing. Goes to show the scientific usefulness of occultation observations!

I'm quite sure that I first saw this photo in December on the NASA New Horizon mission site, along with a full article about the occultation observation that was conducted by a large team in Argentina, but can't find it again ever since the encounter with Ultima Thule on Jan 1. Let me know if you can find the original article again!

Attached Thumbnails

#36 bvillebob

First, I love NASA, space, etc. Hell, I was even crying when the latest Mars lander made it down safely a few weeks ago.

BUT. IMHO this whole even has been the most over-hyped and under-delivered event NASA has ever done. Weeks and months of hype before the event, during the event and afterwards, and all that I've been able to find is ONE moderate resolution image. Sure, it's amazing to see any image of a Kuiper belt object, don't get me wrong, but that's it? By now they don't have a single image from the closest approach?

I've been scouring the net daily looking for updated info and haven't been able to find anything but countless hours of press conference talking about how amazing that one picture is. Did they lose the data?

#37 ascii

First, I love NASA, space, etc. Hell, I was even crying when the latest Mars lander made it down safely a few weeks ago.

BUT. IMHO this whole even has been the most over-hyped and under-delivered event NASA has ever done. Weeks and months of hype before the event, during the event and afterwards, and all that I've been able to find is ONE moderate resolution image. Sure, it's amazing to see any image of a Kuiper belt object, don't get me wrong, but that's it? By now they don't have a single image from the closest approach?

I've been scouring the net daily looking for updated info and haven't been able to find anything but countless hours of press conference talking about how amazing that one picture is. Did they lose the data?

My understanding is that the craft has been in solar conjunction for quite a few days and unable to communicate with Earth. This has delayed the start of the bulk of flyby data transmissions. I think it is supposed to resume transmissions today. Expect quite a few more images and scientific data over the coming months.

#38 Araguaia

Also, because of uncertainty about the position of the object, I believe they had to transmit a load of low-res images in order to be able to select which hi-res images to download. That may have prevented them from getting a "New York Times" image down before conjunction.

#39 Dave Mitsky

First, I love NASA, space, etc. Hell, I was even crying when the latest Mars lander made it down safely a few weeks ago.

BUT. IMHO this whole even has been the most over-hyped and under-delivered event NASA has ever done. Weeks and months of hype before the event, during the event and afterwards, and all that I've been able to find is ONE moderate resolution image. Sure, it's amazing to see any image of a Kuiper belt object, don't get me wrong, but that's it? By now they don't have a single image from the closest approach?

I've been scouring the net daily looking for updated info and haven't been able to find anything but countless hours of press conference talking about how amazing that one picture is. Did they lose the data?

Patience is going to be required. It will take 20 months for the transmission of all the data acquired during the flyby.

#40 Redbetter

First, I love NASA, space, etc. Hell, I was even crying when the latest Mars lander made it down safely a few weeks ago.

BUT. IMHO this whole even has been the most over-hyped and under-delivered event NASA has ever done. Weeks and months of hype before the event, during the event and afterwards, and all that I've been able to find is ONE moderate resolution image. Sure, it's amazing to see any image of a Kuiper belt object, don't get me wrong, but that's it? By now they don't have a single image from the closest approach?

I've been scouring the net daily looking for updated info and haven't been able to find anything but countless hours of press conference talking about how amazing that one picture is. Did they lose the data?

1. It is on the other side of the Sun at this time. This is like complaining that one's scope can't show Pluto visually when it is only a few degrees from the Sun. We are fortunate that they were able to get some images out before the spacecraft went into a communication dead zone.

2. The anticipated data transmission rate was only 1 kbit/sec at Pluto vs. 38 kbit/sec at Jupiter. The actual rate claimed in 2015 was somewhat different, between 0.6 and 1.2 kbit/sec and that was with more ideal geometry with respect to interference from the Sun. I imagine it will be considerably worse now as it is farther away and in a "noisy" part of the sky. This should improve somewhat in the coming weeks.

3. The probe was designed with this in mind, which is why it can store something like 8 GB of data for transmission. It just takes a long time to get the data home.


3Q: On the significance of Ultima Thule

After nearly 20 years of planning and 13 years of flight, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft traveled nearly 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth — the farthest distance yet for a space mission encounter— to visit the Kuiper Belt on the edge of our solar system. In July 2015, the spacecraft approached Pluto, returning extraordinary images and data about the dwarf planet and its moons. Shortly after, the trans-Neptunian object Ultima Thule — whose name means “beyond the known world,” for it is located 1.6 billion kilometers out from Pluto — was selected as the next object of interest. At its closest approach on Jan. 1, the New Horizons probe passed within 3,500 km of 2014 MU69, better known as Ultima Thule, and began transmitting data back to Earth, a process that will take nearly two years to complete. This is the first mission of its kind to explore this region in depth.

New Horizons team members Alissa Earle and Richard Binzel were asked about the significance of the flyby and what it can tell us about the earliest days of our solar system. Earle is a postdoc within the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and on the New Horizons Surface Composition Science Theme Team. Binzel is a co-investigator on the mission, science team liaison for both composition and geology, an EAPS professor of planetary sciences with an appointment in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, and an expert on asteroids and Pluto.

Q: Why go to the outer reaches of our solar system, including Pluto and other Kuiper belt objects?

A: Earle: Kuiper Belt objects are leftover remnants from when the solar system first formed. By studying them, we hope to gain insight into the history and formation of the solar system. Throughout the late 1980s and early 90s, studies of the Pluto system revealed it was an interesting, complex system, but the small sizes and distance from the sun make these objects difficult to investigate from Earth. The limitations of Earth-based observations generated more questions than they solved. This motivated the New Horizons mission to fly through the Pluto system and Kuiper Belt and study them in a level of detail not possible before.

Now all of the data from the Pluto encounter have been sent back to Earth and undergone initial processing, but we are still working on interpreting it all. The Pluto system is very dynamic and complex, so we are still making sense of all the interesting and unexpected things New Horizons observed during that flyby. The data have revealed a diverse and geologically active world displaying a remarkably broad range of landforms, albedos [surface reflectivity], colors, compositions, and surface processes at play. In addition to the diversity across Pluto’s surface, the system also shows a great deal of diversity when comparing Pluto with its largest moon, Charon, as well as the four smaller satellites in the system.

Binzel: It is a region of our solar system we have never explored, which has experienced very little change in its temperature and chemical conditions over the past 4 billion years, making it completely different from the environment and processes found on Earth. By seeing the extremes of planetary processes across our solar system, we gain a better understanding of our own world.

Here, our realm for understanding how planets in our solar system work has been pushed to new limits. Rather than being a cold and dormant wasteland, we have found the largest Kuiper Belt objects like Pluto to be alive — in the sense that it is a geologically active world. Planetary processes like tectonics, convection, glaciation, haze formation, and possibly volcanism were found to be possible, even at the remote extremes of our solar system.

Q: Why, after the Pluto system, was 2014 MU69 selected as the second object for New Horizons to observe? What makes it so special?

A: Earle: 2014 MU69 was discovered by a survey performed on the Hubble Space Telescope to look for Kuiper Belt objects near the path of New Horizons. Since the spacecraft has a finite fuel supply onboard, we needed to find an object that the spacecraft was able to easily get to. 2014 MU69’s orbit placed it very close to the path of the probe, making it an ideal next target.

Given the diversity of the Pluto system and what we can learn about other Kuiper Belt objects from ground-based observations, it is a pretty safe bet that 2014 MU69 will have its own interesting and unique story to tell. Part of what makes this flyby so exciting is that we know very little about the object, and this time, the spacecraft flew very close to the surface of the object, with an approach distance of less than 2,200 miles, in comparison to 7,800 miles from Pluto. As the name suggests, it was discovered in 2014, so we have only been tracking it from the ground for a few years. Based on occultation measurements [observations of the object as it passes between the observer and a distant star], we learned in advance the object has a very irregular shape unlike Pluto, which is almost a perfect sphere. We also know it is a lot smaller than Pluto, with an estimated diameter of about 25-45 km compared to Pluto’s 2,377 km diameter. We also know it takes almost 300 years for it to orbit the sun.

Binzel: From inception, the New Horizons mission was intended to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. After Pluto, we knew the spacecraft would have limited fuel and limited navigating room. We focused our telescopic searches in that volume of reachable space, expecting to find one or more candidate objects. Indeed, we did with 2014 MU69 being the one most directly on the path and enabling the greatest opportunity for science return.

Compared to Pluto, this flyby was much more focused, in the sense that we are examining one single object. At Pluto, we were studying both the planet and its moon Charon, as well as the full satellite system. This makes the 2014 MU69 flyby much more intense, and for decades to come, 2014 MU69 will be the poster child for what a Kuiper Belt object looks like.

Q: Since the flyby, New Horizons has sent images and data revealing Ultima Thule to have a snowman or bowling pin-like shape. What does this tell us about Ultima Thule and the early solar system?

A: Binzel: Ultima Thule's snowman shape is like a dream come true for how we think the earliest steps of planet formation start. Many small clumps, which we call planetesimals, begin to come together, eventually forming into a large planet like the Earth. However out in the Kuiper Belt, there is not very much material most of what is left there is remnants of formation that never got very far. The snowman shape is like seeing the first embryo stage of a forming planet that never was able to grow any further. How fascinating to be able to see Ultima Thule as a snapshot of the beginning of our solar system at a time before Earth even existed.

Earle: New Horizons is pioneering the exploration of the Kuiper Belt, the more we learn about the outer reaches of the solar system, the more it can help us learn about its history and provide more context for understanding the rest of the solar system. New Horizons’ flyby of 2014 MU69 provides a detailed look at a small Kuiper Belt object, which provides interesting comparisons with Pluto and its moons, as well as asteroids, which are similar in size but much closer to the sun — and thus warmer and unable to harbor some of the ices that are believed to be common in the Kuiper Belt.

Ground-based observations also proved an important complement for the data being returned from New Horizons. New Horizons is able to take an extremely detailed look at just a handful of objects, whereas ground-based surveys have much less detail but can gather data on more objects to provide context for understanding the New Horizons data and how Pluto, its moons, and 2014 MU69 might compare to other Kuiper Belt objects.

New Horizons is led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. In addition to MIT, APL and SwRI, the New Horizons team includes Stanford University, Ball Aerospace Corp., NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission science team includes expertise from the above institutions, as well as Lowell Observatory, NASA Ames Research Center, Washington University in St. Louis, George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Colorado.


New Horizons' Big Reveal On MU69: Ultima Thule Is A Typical 'Future Comet'

2014 MU69 is thought to have originally been two objects, nicknamed 'Ultima' and 'Thule', that . [+] formed over time from a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies. Comparison with known cometary nuclei suggest that Ultima Thule will become a typical comet if it enters the inner Solar System.

As 2018 ended and 2019 began, NASA's New Horizons flew past its first target after Pluto: 2014 MU69.

Ultima Thule is barely a blip in images (left) from the New Horizons spacecraft. The remote world . [+] stands out more when the stars have been removed (right) the dark blobs are artifacts from imperfect star subtraction. Yellow crosshairs mark Ultima’s position. Until just a few days before its arrival, 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule) was no more than a single pixel in New Horizons' detectors.

Nicknamed Ultima Thule, it's transformed from a single pixel in our detectors to a red-hued, mottled snowman.

The first color image constructed (via a composite from New Horizons data) of 2014 MU69: Ultima . [+] Thule. The reddish color is likely due to tholins: the same reddish color visibly present on the surface of Charon.

The first three weeks of data have revealed spectacular details concerning this distant world.

Multiple images of Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) as New Horizons approached it reveal a body that's . [+] rotating and tumbling, but also reveal additional details about the object, as the distance from the camera decreased from 500,000 km down to 28,000 km: a decrease of 94%.

Aside from its inactivity, it conforms perfectly to our expectations of cometary nuclei.

Many comets have had their nuclei imaged by a variety of spacecraft, revealing two main classes of . [+] cometary nuclei: a single-object nucleus and a contact binary nucleus. 2014 MU69 appears to be of the contact binary type, and marks the first time we've ever imaged such an object before it's ever developed a tail or lost some of its volatiles.

The Planetary Society / various (see image for full credits)

In 1986, Halley's comet was imaged by the ESA's Giotto mission, revealing a two-lobed core.

This view of Comet Halley's nucleus was obtained by the Halley Multicolour Camera (HMC) on board the . [+] Giotto spacecraft, as it passed within 600 km of the comet nucleus on 13 March 1986. The comet was clearly quite active at the time.

Similarly, Deep Impact's 2010 pictures of comet Hartley 2 revealed volatile-laden lobes connected by a smooth neck.

NASA's Deep Impact probe took these images of comet Hartley 2, revealing outgassing from the edges . [+] of one of its lobes and vast differences in surface reflectivity from region to region. The smooth neck is likely not a flaw, but a feature common to many contact binaries that originate in the Kuiper belt, as the accumulation of icy material leads to this configuration. Scientists are still gathering the data from New Horizons' flyby of 2014 MU69, which could shed additional light on the details of smooth-neck formation.

But the ESA's Rosetta mission set a new standard in cometary imaging.

A high-resolution image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reveals a large body consisting of two . [+] lobes connected by a thinner neck. Similar to Halley's comet or 2014 MU69, comet Hartley 2 shows a 'contact binary' configuration. We now believe this is common among Kuiper belt objects.

Its now-legendary snapshots and movies of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko show offgassing, plumes, and even snow.

The sun-facing sides of comets heat up first, with the presence of easily-sublimated ices leading to . [+] offgassing, the release of pressure, and the loss of material. The longer comets spend in close proximity to the Sun, the faster they evaporate. For objects still in the Kuiper belt, evaporation should be negligible.

Volatile, icy materials are abundant on these comets, and change phase rapidly when they're exposed to sunlight.

The most spectacular movie from ESA's Rosetta mission shows what the surface of comet . [+] 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looks like, including the volatile ices that sublimate and re-freeze when they're in sunlight or shadow, respectively, causing this snow-like behavior.

Ultima Thule is currently rotating and tumbling in a similar fashion to these known, close-in comets.

This movie shows the tumbling, propeller-like rotation of Ultima Thule over the span of nine hours . [+] between 20:00 UT (3 p.m. ET) on Dec. 31, 2018, and 05:01 UT (12:01 a.m. ET) on Jan. 1, 2019, as seen by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons.

The only difference? It's still incredibly distant from the Sun, causing its ices to remain intact.

Based on the data that has come back so far from the New Horizons mission and its images of 2014 . [+] MU69 (Ultima Thule), we've been able to construct a 3D model of what this object looks like. Its two-lobes appearance, with a smooth, reflective neck, reveals a comet-like nature that is still frozen completely, having never had its volatiles sufficiently heated by the Sun.

Ultima Thule looks just like a typical cometary nucleus, marking the first time we've imaged one in its place of origin: the Kuiper belt.

This Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule, . [+] about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, encountered by the New Horizons spacecraft. The brightness differences correspond to differences in surface reflectivity. It will take approximately 20 months, given New Horizons' current distance and trajectory, to download all the data taken during the 2019 New Year's flyby.


What does New Horizons do next?

First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask Nasa to fund a further extension to the mission.

The hope is that the course of the spacecraft can be altered slightly to visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.

New Horizons should have just enough fuel reserves to be able to do this. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s.

The longevity of New Horizon's plutonium battery may even allow it to record its exit from the Solar System.

The two 1970s Voyager missions have both now left the heliosphere - the bubble of gas blown off our Sun (one definition of the Solar System's domain). Voyager 2 only recently did it, in November.

And in case you were wondering, New Horizons will never match the Voyagers in terms of distance travelled from Earth. Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions. The reason: the Voyagers got a gravitational speed boost when they passed the outer planets. Voyager-1 is now moving at almost 17km/s New Horizons is moving at 14km/s.

The BBC's Sky At Night programme will broadcast a special episode on the flyby on Sunday 13 January on BBC Four at 22:30 GMT. Presenter Chris Lintott will review the event and discuss some of the new science to emerge from the encounter with the New Horizons team.


The strange world of NASA spacecraft target ‘Ultima Thule’

Many of us know that the most distant of the known planets in the solar system was the tiny world we called planet Pluto.

All that changed back in 2006, when the astronomical world changed the status of Pluto to a dwarf planet.

Pluto is still very far from the Sun, at a mean distance of some 3.67 billion miles, taking light some 5.3 hours to get to this distant world.

During my college days, I had the pleasure of having Dr. Clyde Tombaugh as an instructor in my study of astronomy.

Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff on Feb. 18, 1930.

I had many great conversations with him and many of my recorded interviews are still on the website, dedicated to him.

In 2006, an amazing spacecraft was launched towards the dwarf planet Pluto, known as New Horizons.

New Horizons reached Pluto in July 2015 and revealed an amazing planet, rich in detail and structure.

In memory of Tombaugh, NASA placed some of his ashes aboard the spacecraft. You can learn so much more about the New Horizon mission to Pluto here.

The spacecraft then moved on to the deep dark of the solar system, only to be re-directed to a small and yet unknown object discovered by astronomers on June 26, 2014, with the Hubble Space Telescope.

This tiny Kuiper Belt asteroid-like body, 2014 MU69, was the new target of the New Horizon’s spacecraft.

With such a bland designation, astronomers came up with a very interesting name for this tiny object: “Ultima Thule,” a Latin metaphor for a place that is beyond the borders of the known world.

The New Horizon spacecraft did a close flyby of the most distant object yet visited by any spacecraft on New Year’s Day.

Ultima Thule may be only 20 miles long and shaped like a dog bone, with a possible small moon attached. The object may also be a close contact binary asteroid, with a close satellite.

There could also be a cluster of small moons attached to it!

Ultima Thule orbits the Sun with a period of some 295 years!

If all goes as planned, New Horizons came within 2,200 miles of the surface of this distant world, at 12:33 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday.

Light travel time back to the Earth was expected to be some six hours as we await the images that will hopefully be coming in from this distant remnant of the creation of the solar system!


New Year New Horizons: Ring in 2019 with ‘Ultima Thule’

In July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft dazzled us all with our first ever close up pictures of Pluto, a world which had appeared in textbooks previously only as a speck of light with an arrow pointed at it. However, New Horizons is not done. At 11:33 pm CST on New Year’s Eve 2018 (thus, January 1 on the east coast and in most of the world), New Horizons will fly past a tiny, icy rock nicknamed “Ultima Thule”, a member of the Kuiper Belt. About a billion miles farther from the Sun than Pluto, Ultima Thule will become the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Artist’s Concept of 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule) as a Binary Object. Author: Alex Parker. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

If you are familiar with the asteroid belt, which consists of over 100,000 tiny rocky bodies orbiting between Mars and Jupter, the Kuiper Belt is similar. However, the Kuiper belt is 20 times wider, as it begins just beyond Neptune’s orbit and extends 20 AU (Earth-Sun distances) outward from there. It also contains many more objects, making it 20 or even up to 200 times more massive than the asteroid belt. Also, since the region beyond Neptune is far colder, Kuiper Belt objects are as icy as they are rocky.

The Kuiper Belt also includes Pluto. Pluto was ‘demoted’ in 2006 because astronomers kept finding larger and larger Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) until they found some approaching Pluto’s size. Also, they found that many of these objects have orbits like Pluto’s, highly inclined and in a 2:3 resonance with Neptune. It became impossible to exclude Pluto from this category.

Artist’s impression of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), located on the outer rim of our solar system at a staggering distance of 4 billion miles from the Sun. Author: Nasa. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, after the launch of New Horizons, astronomers searched Pluto’s region of the Kuiper Belt for other KBOs that might happen to lie along the spacecraft’s path, which New Horizons might also explore. In 2014, the search turned up an object, designated 2014 MU69, which New Horizons could reach with four small course corrections, requiring only about a third of the fuel left. It is this object that has been nicknamed “Ultima Thule”. (An official name will have to wait until after the actual flyby). Ancient Greek and Roman mapmakers had called the northernmost spot on their maps ‘Thule’ (the ‘e’ is pronounced, not silent). In classical and medieval literature, ‘ultima Thule’ referred to a spot beyond the boundaries of the known world.

Astronomers classify KBOs into two main categories based on how they orbit the Sun. One type of KBO orbits much like planets do, following an almost circular path near the same plane where the planets orbit. These ‘classical’ KBOs are often called ‘cubewanos’, since the first one found had the designation 1992 QB1. The other KBOs are in an orbital resonance with Neptune, meaning that they orbit exactly once per two Neptune orbits, exactly twice per three Neptune orbits, or some other such ratio. These have more elliptical orbits which are inclined to the plane where the planets orbit. Pluto is in the second category (it has a 2:3 resonance with Neptune), while Ultima Thule is in the first.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. Author: NASA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, this encounter is our first ever close up look at a classical KBO. After watching Ultima pass in front of three different stars in summer 2017, and watching the stars’ light blink out and reappear at different sites, astronomers determined that Ultima Thule has a distinct two lobed shape. In fact, it may really be two objects close together instead of just one! We’ll find out for sure on New Year’s Eve. New Horizons will fly about three times closer to Ultima Thule than to Pluto, giving us a good view of this tiny object only 30-45 km across. We hope for a good look at its geology and composition, providing our first concrete clues as to how it formed and evolved. Does Ultima Thule have a moon? Does it give off a coma as comets do? In what ways is its composition similar to or different from that of Pluto or comets? These are some of the questions we’ll start exploring with real data as 2019 rolls in. And New Horizons has been taking pictures of other KBOs in the area as well. Yes, these others appear only as points of light since the spacecraft isn’t flying next to them, but those points are much brighter than they appear back at Earth. It’ll take most of 2019 to beam back all this data, which will keep astronomers busy much longer than that.

James is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He teaches students every school morning in the planetarium, and also answers astronomy questions from the public.

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New Horizons Update: Best-yet picture of Ultima Thule has been released

The wonders – and mysteries – of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, continue to multiply as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beams home new images of its New Year’s Day 2019 flyby target.

This image, taken during the historic 1 January 2019 flyby of what’s informally known as Ultima Thule, is the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the Solar System – and the first small “KBO” ever explored by a spacecraft.

Obtained with the wide-angle Multicolour Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) component of New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, this image was taken when the KBO was 6,700 kilometres (4,200 miles) from the spacecraft, at 05:26 UT (12:26 a.m. EST) on 1 January – just seven minutes before closest approach. With an original resolution of 135 metres (440 feet) per pixel, the image was stored in the spacecraft’s data memory and transmitted to Earth on 18-19 January. Scientists then sharpened the image to enhance fine detail. (This process – known as deconvolution – also amplifies the graininess of the image when viewed at high contrast.)

The oblique lighting of this image reveals new topographic details along the day/night boundary, or terminator, near the top. These details include numerous small pits up to about 0.7 kilometres (0.4 miles) in diameter. The large circular feature, about seven kilometres (four miles) across, on the smaller of the two lobes, also appears to be a deep depression. Not clear is whether these pits are impact craters or features resulting from other processes, such as “collapse pits” or the ancient venting of volatile materials.

An artist’s impression of the Ultima Thule flyby. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Both lobes also show many intriguing light and dark patterns of unknown origin, which may reveal clues about how this body was assembled during the formation of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago. One of the most striking of these is the bright “collar” separating the two lobes.

“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” says Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, United States. “Over the next month there will be better colour and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”

New Horizons is approximately 6.64 billion kilometres (4.13 billion miles) from Earth, operating normally and speeding away from the Sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 50,700 kilometres (31,500 miles) per hour. At that distance, a radio signal reaches Earth six hours and nine minutes after leaving the spacecraft.

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What's so special about the Kuiper belt?

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.

One is that the Sun is so dim in this region that temperatures are down near 30-40 degrees above absolute zero - the lower end of the temperature scale and the coldest atoms and molecules can possibly get. As a result, chemical reactions have essentially stalled. This means Ultima is in such a deep freeze that it is probably perfectly preserved in the state in which it formed.

Another factor is that Ultima is small (about 33km in the longest dimension), and this means it doesn't have the type of "geological engine" that in larger objects will rework their composition.

And a third factor is just the nature of the environment. It's very sedate in the Kuiper belt.

Unlike in the inner Solar System, there are probably very few collisions between objects. The Kuiper belt hasn't been stirred up.

Prof Stern said: "Everything that we're going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing - is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we've gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can't tell us because they're either large and evolve, or they are warm. Ultima is unique."


Watch the video: MV Na Ha Eun나하은 - So Special feat. Microdot (August 2022).