On December 31st, 2018, NASA’s New Horizons mission made historical past by being the primary spacecraft to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This got here roughly two and a half years after New Horizons turned the primary mission in historical past to conduct a flyby of Pluto. This newest encounter led to some gorgeous photos of the KBO because the spacecraft made it’s strategy.
However in fact, these weren’t the final photos New Horizons was going to seize of this object. Whereas making its flyby of Ultima Thule on New Yr’s Day, the spacecraft took a variety of photos that exposed one thing very fascinating about Ultima Thule’s form. Fairly than consisting of two spheres which are joined collectively, Ultima Thule is definitely made up of two segments – one that appears like a pancake, the opposite a walnut.
These photos symbolize the ultimate look that the New Horizons spacecraft had of Ultima Thule (formally named 2014 MU69) because it raced previous the article on Jan. 1st, 2019. They have been taken almost ten minutes after New Horizons made its closest strategy to the article whereas touring at speeds of over 50,000zero km/h (31,000 mph).
As Alan Stern, the mission’s Principal Investigator on the Southwest Analysis Institute (SwRI), mentioned in a latest John Hopkins College Utilized Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) press launch:
“This actually is an unbelievable picture sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth. Nothing fairly like this has ever been captured in imagery.”
The newly-released photos revealed necessary scientific details about Ultima Thule, notably is its true form. The primary close-up photos of Ultima Thule indicated that the article was composed of two spherical segments, which had individuals calling it a “snowman”. Nonetheless, extra evaluation of those photos and the brand new departure photos have prompted scientists to rethink that.
For one, the departure photos have been taken from a distinct angle than the strategy pictures, which revealed complementary details about the KBOs form. The New Horizons workforce additionally mixed 14 of the flyby photos into a brief film, which allowed them to substantiate that the 2 “lobes” of Ultima Thule will not be spherical.
Flyby photos of Ultima Thule taken by the New Horizons probe on Jan. 1st, 2019. Credit score: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/NOAO
Whereas the bigger lobe (“Ultima”) resembles a large pancake, the smaller lobe (“Thule”) is formed like a walnut. As Stern put it:
“We had an impression of Ultima Thule primarily based on the restricted variety of photos returned within the days across the flyby, however seeing extra knowledge has considerably modified our view. It could be nearer to actuality to say Ultima Thule’s form is flatter, like a pancake. However extra importantly, the brand new photos are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object may even be shaped. We’ve by no means seen one thing like this orbiting the Solar.”
Second, the brand new evaluation managed to hint out the portion of Ultima Thule that was not illuminated by the Solar, however which might be recognized by the way in which it blocked out the background stars. Whereas the illuminated crescent was blurred within the particular person frames due to the comparatively lengthy publicity time, the science workforce mixed and processed the pictures to sharpen the skinny crescent.
The science workforce was then in a position to evaluate their evaluation to a mannequin assembled from analyzing pre-flyby photos and ground-based telescope observations. “The form mannequin we have now derived from all the current Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably in step with what we have now discovered from the brand new crescent photos,” mentioned Simon Porter, a New Horizons co-investigator from the SwRI, who leads the shape-modeling effort.
Excessive-resolution picture of Ultima Thule. Credit score: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
As Hal Weaver, a New Horizons challenge scientist from the JHUAPL, summarized:
“Whereas the very nature of a quick flyby in some methods limits how nicely we will decide the true form of Ultima Thule, the brand new outcomes clearly present that Ultima and Thule are a lot flatter than initially believed, and far flatter than anticipated. This may undoubtedly encourage new theories of planetesimal formation within the early photo voltaic system.”
Apart from being an historic first, the New Horizons‘ prolonged mission to review KBOs additionally represents a novel scientific alternative. By finding out objects left over from the formation of the Photo voltaic System, scientists hope to be taught extra about how our Photo voltaic System shaped and advanced over time. The truth that at the very least considered one of these objects has such an fascinating form is prone to result in some fascinating conclusions!
And you should definitely take a look at this video that reveals the up to date mannequin of Ultima Thule, courtesy of NASA Video:
Additional Studying: JHUAPL