RocketSTEM –25 January 2019
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – Scientists are gleeful as NASA’s New Horizons
probe has transmitted back her sharpest view yet of distant Ultima Thule lurking more than 4 billion miles (6.6
billion km) from Earth in the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt following the stunning
success of the New Years Day flyby.
Thule – which means ‘beyond
the known world’ – ranks
as the furthest and coldest object ever explored – a magnificently preserved bi-lobal
fossil body formed during the birth of the solar
system that looks remarkably like a ‘snowman.
The newly released image was captured when New Horizons was
merely 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) distant from the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO)
at 12:26 a.m. EST (05:26 UT) on Jan. 1, 2019 – just seven minutes before closest approach.
The image brings Ultima Thule into truly sharp focus for the
first time revealing surface features including a number pits and depressions
that certainly resemble craters ranging in size from small to large as well as
the one giant pit located on the smaller of the two lobes.
“The wonders – and mysteries – of Kuiper Belt object 2014
MU69 continue to multiply as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beams home new
images of its New Year’s Day 2019 flyby target,” according to the mission team in
a statement releasing the new image on Jan. 24.
The new image was taken by the wide-angle Multicolor Visible
Imaging Camera (MVIC) component of New Horizons’ Ralph instrument with a resolution
of 440 feet (135 meters) per pixel and stored in the on-board memory. It was beamed
back on Jan. 18-19 to eagerly waiting scientists.
The precious best image was taken by the LORRI imager from approximately
17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) with a resolution of 0.08
miles (0.14 kilometers) per pixel as New Horizons was approaching at a velocity
of 32,000 mph (9 miles per second) – taken about 30 minutes prior to closest
approach. It was released at the Jan. 2 press briefing.
“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,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of
the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.
“Over the next month there will be better color and
better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of
On New Year’s Day 2019 at 12:33 a.m. EST the New
Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule within a distance of merely 2,200
miles (3,500 kilometers) while approaching
at a velocity of 32,000 mph (9 miles per second).
“The object consists of two similarly red,
similarly reflective lobes measuring approximately 14 and 19 km across,
respectively. Their similar nature points to their individual accretion in a
swarm of like objects, followed by a gentle merger. Nothing like this has ever
been seen up close and personal before,” Stern wrote in an invited abstract for
the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference upcoming in Houston this March.
Watch this recently released rotation movie showing
the propeller-like rotation of Ultima Thule in the seven hours between 20:00 UT
(3 p.m. ET) on Dec. 31, 2018, and 05:01 UT (12:01 a.m.) on Jan. 1, 2019, as
seen by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons
as the spacecraft sped toward its close encounter with the Kuiper Belt object
at 05:33 UT (12:33 a.m. ET) on Jan. 1.
Ultima Thule has a rotation period of about 16
The baby grand piano shaped probe gathered about
50 GB of data including imagery, spectroscopy and research measurements using its
7 on board science instruments. It will take about 20 months for all the data
to be beamed back to Earth.
Here is a detailed description of the new MVIC image:
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 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in
diameter. The large circular feature, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) 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
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.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/spaceupclose.com
“Ultima Thule” is
an unchanged fossil remnant and planetesimal formed during the dawn of our
solar system some 4.5 Billion Years ago.
the tiny building blocks from which much larger structures like moons and
planets are born by accretion of hordes of bits of matter over time.
The bi-lobal rock is shaped remarkably like a ‘snowman’ and
consists of two connected balls roughly spherical in appearance.
The new world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length.
The team has unofficially nicknamed the larger sphere “Ultima” (12
miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere “Thule” (9
miles/14 kilometers across).
At the moment New Horizons is approximately 4.13 billion miles (6.64
billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding away from the
Sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 31,500 miles (50,700 kilometers) per hour.
At that distance, a radio signal reaches Earth six hours and nine minutes after
leaving the spacecraft.
New Horizons full
trajectory and current location. Credits: NASA/Johns
Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
for Ken’s continuing coverage of New Horizons and prior reporting direct from JHU
for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin,
Northrop Grumman and more space and mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space
Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida and Wallops Flight Facility,
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science
and human spaceflight news: www.kenkremer.com –www.spaceupclose.com – twitter
@ken_kremer – email: ken at kenkremer.com
Dr. Kremer is a research scientist,
journalist and photographer based in the KSC area.
Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events