This is far out. A billion miles beyond Pluto, that’s how far. The New Horizons space probe has beamed back the first images of an object it was directed to encounter a billion miles beyond the orbit of the former planet Pluto. Ultima Thule (officially 2014 MU69) is now the farthest object in our solar system that we have observed in detail. Previously only visible as a few blurry pixels with our most powerful space telescopes, Ultima turns out to be, upon closer inspection, two roundish rocks glued together by gravity somewhat in the shape of a snowman.
This clumping is thought to be common in the collection of objects outside the orbit of our known planets.
486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is a trans-Neptunian object located in the Kuiper belt. It is a contact binary 31 km (19 mi) long, composed of two joined bodies 19 km (12 mi) and 14 km (9 mi) across that are nicknamed “Ultima” and “Thule”, respectively. With an orbital period of 298 years and a low inclination and eccentricity, it is classified as a classical Kuiper belt object. With the New Horizons space probe’s flyby on 1 January 2019, 2014 MU69 became the farthest object in the Solar System visited by a spacecraft, and is believed to be the most primitive, both bodies being planetesimal aggregates of much smaller building blocks.
Since its discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014, Ultima Thule has been little more than a dim speck of light in even the most powerful instruments. By measuring how Ultima blocked out the light of a star while passing in front as viewed from Earth, researchers concluded it was an elongated body of some sort but little else was known.
That all changed this weekend when New Horizons, now a billion miles beyond Pluto, moved close enough for its most powerful camera to begin detecting hints of structure.
In initial images released Monday and Tuesday, taken at distances of more than 300,000 miles, all that could be discerned was a blurry, elongated shape with thicker, lobe-like features on each end of a 20-mile-long body. The fuzzy shape reminded some viewers of a bowling pin or perhaps a peanut. …
Taken at a distance of about 18,000 miles, a half hour before the point of closest approach New Year’s Day, the black-and-white image shows a still somewhat blurry view of two bodies joined together at a relatively narrow neck. Researchers promptly named the large lobe “Ultima” and the smaller lobe “Thule.” …
Racing through space at more than 32,000 mph, or nearly nine miles per second, New Horizons passed within about 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule’s surface at 12:33 a.m. EST (GMT-5) on New Year’s Day. …
Read more at CBSNews
Despite the enormous velocity, the dimness of the sun some 4.1 billion miles away and the distance between New Horizons and its target — roughly the same as Los Angeles to Washington D.C. — the spacecraft’s cameras were able to capture features as small as 500 feet across in the image released Wednesday.
Congratulations and thanks to the teams that pulled this off, a great accomplishment for all of humanity!
For fun, here’s what I see when I look at Ultima. Real image left, mine right. Thoughts?