NASA’s New Horizons Shows Image of Snowman-Like Object

05 January, 2019, 06:41 | Author: Rosalie Gross
  • 2014 MU69

The team behind the Boulder-born New Horizons mission on Wednesday released the clearest image to date from its New Year's Eve flyby of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object on which the spacecraft set its sights after a historic brush with Pluto more than three years and a billion miles ago.

How it was taken: The picture above was taken on January 1 2019 from a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers), using the spacecraft's two cameras: the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera.

Ultima Thule is what NASA describes as a "contact binary", meaning it is made up of two previously separate objects that are now bound together as one.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said during the news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. The astronomical body was labeled Ultima Thule which means beyond the known world prior to scientists could vociferate certainly if it is one object or two.

Ultima Thule is likely similar to some comets and asteroids that scientists have studied as they pass through the inner solar system.

Cathy Olkin
New Horizons unveils a new world. Actually, it's 2 worlds smashed together.

Ultima's current rotation rate, estimated at about 15 hours for a complete turn, isn't fast enough to fling the two balls apart, Moore said.

"I think we should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a way-back machine set to time zero, that's brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history to the place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".

Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead, said the appearance of Ultima Thule is remarkable. Based on early images it looked like a bowling pin but a new consensus emerged with new images. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. The small object appeared as a point source in Hubble Space Telescope images, where it was discovered in 2014, and in images from New Horizons itself until a couple days before the flyby. The team has dubbed the larger sphere, which is 12 miles across, "Ultima" and the smaller sphere, which is 9 miles across, "Thule". "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered in the evening for a look.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges.

"The term, Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration, and that's why we chose it", Stern said.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

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