Ultima Thule Is a Distant, Icy Little Object, Just Like Your Father

Cristina Cross
January 3, 2019

Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead, said the appearance of Ultima Thule is remarkable.

The New Horizons team has released the first high-resolution images of (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, the furthest object ever explored by a spacecraft.

Now, New Horizons will beam the first information and images from this close flyby back to Earth.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system". That didn't make the accomplishment any less significant, though.

While contact binaries have been observed in the solar system already, what's exciting about 2014 MU69 is that we know definitively that this is how it formed, as a contact binary, and not what it was shaped into via interactions with planets, the Sun, or through sublimation and structural collapse changes.

Nasa launched the New Horizons probe in 2006 it's about the size of a baby grand piano
APNasa launched the New Horizons probe in 2006 it's about the size of a baby grand piano

"I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest that the Hand Of Man has ever reached", says May. Therefore, it wasn't practical for New Horizons to enter orbit of Pluto. In this image, "Thule" is the upper, smaller lobe and "Ultima" is the larger, bottom lobe.

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

Images taken during the spacecraft's approach - which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST - revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). Unlike the Japanese rovers that performed a wild landing on a moving asteroid last fall, New Horizons is keeping its distance from Ultima Thule to thousands of miles, where it can capture details the size of a basketball court, according to mission scientists. So, prepared to be wowed by higher-resolution photos in the coming days and weeks. That means its two lobes are separate objects that have joined together.

The larger sphere is "Ultima" and measures 19 kilometres across. Some of the data acquired by New Horizons might shed light on that. Scientists say no impact craters could be seen in the latest photos.

While much higher-resolution images will provide a better sense of the topography and geography of 2014 MU69, what is now known is that the bottom, larger lobe ("Ultima") contains changes in elevation greater than one kilometer and that the upper, smaller lobe ("Thule") may contain a plateau feature.

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