First high-resolution images of Ultima Thule released

Rodiano Bonacci
Settembre 13, 2019

"In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, today New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system".

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.

A NASA spacecraft travelling almost 6.4 billion kilometres from the Earth has sent back its first close-up pictures of the most distant celestial object ever explored. The broken record was also previously set by the same probe, after it passed Pluto in 2015. Future images sent back to Earth will be of a higher quality as they will have been taken closer to the object and will benefit from better sunlight.

In a lengthy update by the New Horizons team, the group boasts that New Horizons sent back a signal to its handlers letting them know that it had filled its on-board recorders with a wealth of science data that it collected as it zoomed past Ultima Thule.

"We could not be happier", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said. Even at the speed of light, signals from the outer solar system take a long time to reach Earth.

Ultima Thule is a tiny, icy body known as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO).

The New Horizons team believe Ultima and Thule slowly collided soon after the solar system was taking shape. To be fair though, that's not a bad ETA, considering it's 6.5 million kilometres away.

Taken at the Mission Operations Center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel Maryland on Jan. 1 2019
First high-resolution images of Ultima Thule released

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin.

And while the first images may still be a bit disappointing, the best pictures will be arriving in the days and weeks ahead.

"As we get closer and closer to the target the sun illumination will change", said Jeff Moore, from NASA's Ames center. This created a snowman-shaped, two-lobed binary object.

Scraps of information about Ultima Thule can be found on the web.

MU69 appears to have few craters or other signs of violent impact, supporting the idea that the solar system's building blocks formed when friction and gravity gently drew together clouds of dust and gravel-a theory known as pebble accretion. The "neck" between the two lobes is particularly bright, perhaps because small, reflective particles tumbled into its crevasse, said Cathy Olkin, a deputy project scientist and planetary scientist at SwRI. "It's something that's completely different".

"I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign", Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming process, told me at Newsweek in March.

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