Boulder-born New Horizons Mission Sees ‘new Mysteries’ in Latest Image of Ultima Thule

January 25, 2019
A newly released image of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object targeted in a New Year's Eve flyby by the New Horizons mission, intrigues scientists with its pits of unknown origin, and the bright "collar" where its two lobes meet.

The clearest image to date of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object targeted in a New Year’s Eve flyby by the Boulder-born New Horizons mission, was released Thursday.

Obtained with the wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera component of New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, the image was recorded when the object, formally known as 2014 MU69, was 4,200 miles from the spacecraft, according to a news release.

With an original resolution of 440 feet per pixel, the image was stored in the spacecraft’s data memory and transmitted 4.3 billion miles back to Earth Jan. 18-19. The image was then sharpened by scientists to enhance fine detail, the release stated.

The flyby of Ultima Thule at 10:33 p.m. MST on Dec. 31 was the latest achievement of New Horizons mission, which previously captivated many across the world with its historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015.

Scientists have said it is the most distant and oldest object in space ever investigated by a spacecraft.

“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,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, who is associate vice president of the Space Engineering Division at Boulder’s Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement.

“Over the next month, there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”

Ultima Thule — its name is a traditional term for distant places beyond the known world — is viewed by scientists as a physical representation of the beginnings of planetary formation, frozen in time. It is believed that by studying it, scientists will gain an understanding of the formation of planets, both those in our solar system and those orbiting other stars in the galaxy.

Initial data from the end-of-year flyby show that it is a bi-lobed, or binary object, measuring about 19 miles in length, and has a rotation period of about 15 hours, plus or minus an hour. Its larger lobe is judged to be about 12 miles across, and the smaller is 9 miles across.

According to a news release, the oblique lighting in the new image shows new topographic details along what’s known as the day/night boundary, near the top. Those details include numerous small pits up to about 0.4 miles in diameter. A larger circular feature, about 4 miles across, on the smaller of the two lobes, also appears to be a deep depression.

Scientists don’t yet know if those depressions are impact craters, or features that resulted from other processes such as the ancient venting of volatile materials

Researchers are intrigued by its light and dark patterns of undetermined origin — including what they call a bright “collar” where the two lobes meet — which they hope will eventually provide clues to the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan

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