03Jan2019

Historic First Images From Mysterious Ultima Thule

Scientists from NASA’s New Horizons mission have released the first detailed images of Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever explored. Make no mistake, this is an exciting time in space exploration!

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. At left is an enhanced color image produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels.

Its remarkable appearance, consisting of two primitive spheres stuck together in the middle, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. “This flyby is a historic achievement,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. (image above) The center image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object.

“Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body so far away in the abyss of space. We’re getting our first close-up look at ancient planetesimals.” Planetestimals are the building blocks of planets. Here in the inner solar system, no pristine examples remain for us to study. By the way, the object has now earned the name ;Snowman.’

They have been swallowed by planets, hammered by asteroids, and scorched by solar radiation. Ultima Thule, however, has been preserved in the deep freeze of the outer solar system for more than 4 billion years. It is truly a relic of the genesis of planets.

Mission scientists believe that Ultima Thule formed by accretion. A swarm of smaller planetesimals gathered under the pull of their own meagre gravity to form two spherical bodies, medium-sized planetesimals which themselves slowly bumped together and stuck. The result was Ultima Thule.

This is just the beginning of Ultima Thule’s revelations. First images released today have a resolution of about 140 meters per pixel. Images arriving in the days and weeks ahead will be as much as 5 times sharper, possibly revealing craters, hills, landslides, rilles and other unknowns.

New Horizons also scanned the area for tiny moons–the debris of the original swarm that gave birth to this strange object. Detections, if any, will be revealed in future transmissions from the spacecraft. Stay tuned!

Browse: Slides from today’s science briefing and the latest images from New Horizons

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