NASA’s New Horizons probe was a smashing success when it completed the first-ever flyby of the former ninth planet. Getting a better look at Pluto was only the start, though. NASA pointed New Horizons at a small Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69 or “Ultima Thule.” We’ve seen a few images of this object from New Horizons, but the latest image is much sharper, revealing some fascinating features.
The region explored by New Horizons is mysterious because it’s incredibly hard to get a spacecraft out there. NASA launched New Horizons in 2006 when Pluto was still considered a planet. By the time the spacecraft reached its target in 2015 (after setting a record for the fastest man-made spacecraft), Pluto was merely a dwarf planet. Because it was moving at such phenomenal speed, New Horizons couldn’t slow down to remain in orbit of Pluto. That’s a bummer if you want to study Pluto, but it opens up plenty of opportunities to explore new frontiers.
As New Horizons began its approach of Ultima Thule late last year, we saw those first fuzzy images of a “bowling pin” floating in space. As we rang in 2019, NASA has better shots that showed Ultima Thule was more of a “snowman.” It’s actually the first confirmed contact binary object ever studied up close. That means it’s composed of two distinct objects that became connected at some point in the past.
The new image is even sharper than the one NASA released several weeks back. New Horizons captured this image from a distance of 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) on January 1st just seven minutes before its closest approach with Ultima Thule. We’re only seeing the image now because the slow data transmission rate from New Horizons means NASA couldn’t retrieve this image until January 18-19.
Ultima Thule is about 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers) in size, and the photo captured by the Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) instrument has a resolution of 440 feet (135 meters) per pixel. Scientists sharpened the image to resolve fine details including numerous small pits about 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in diameter. The smaller of the two lopes also has a massive depression about 4 miles (7 kilometers) across. It’s unclear if these are the result of impacts or surface collapse from the venting of volatile materials in the distant past. Equally baffling are the bright patches and “neck” region of the object.
The instruments on New Horizons may be able to shed light on the nature of Ultima Thule, but it’s going to take time. NASA says higher resolution and full-color images will be available in the coming months.
- Pluto Has Dunes Made of Ice Instead of Sand
- New Horizons Smashes Own Record, Captures First Image of New Destination, Ultima Thule
- NASA’s New Horizons Probe Wakes Up to Study Kuiper Belt