On December 31, 2018, the probe New Horizons directed the first flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in history. About half an hour later, the mission controllers received the first clear images of Ultima Thule (aka 2014 MU69). Over the next two months, the first high-resolution images of the object were published, and some quite interesting findings were made on the shape of the KBOs.
Recently, NASA released more new images of Ultima Thule and they are the clearest and most detailed yet! The images were taken as part of a mission team's "Aiming Goal", an ambitious goal to photograph Ultima Thule just minutes before the spacecraft's next approach. And as you undoubtedly can see from the images provided by NASA, the mission has been accomplished!
The images were all obtained from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument, only six and a half minutes before the spacecraft launched on January 1, 2019 at 12:33 EST (9:33 am PST) approached the closest. The clarity of the images is based on a combination of LORRI's high spatial resolution – 33 m (110 ft) per pixel – and the favorable viewing angle provided by the mission team New Horizons .
Prior to this latest release, the most detailed images taken by LORRI were taken 30 minutes before New Horizons . The spacecraft was in a range of 28,000 km from Ultima Thul e. While providing a detailed view of the object, the latest images allow researchers to explore the surface of Ultima Thule and its formation and evolution.
As Alan Stern is the Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), which was stated in a recent NASA press release, this was not an easy achievement:
"Bullseye ! To get these images, we needed to know exactly where both the minuscule Ultima and the New Horizons were – moment to moment – when they were in the dim light of the Kuiper Belt, a billion miles beyond Pluto, over 32,000 miles passed by per hour. This was a much more difficult observation than anything we had tried in our 2015 Pluto flyby. "
The clarity of these news images expresses many surface features that were unrecognizable in the previous ones. For example, there are the bright and roughly circular terrain points and the many dark pits near the terminator (the line marking the day-night boundary) that are now visible, but were not there thanks to the improved resolution.
According to John Spencer, Deputy Project Scientist at SwRI, the exact cause of these traits remains a mystery. At present, the science team is trying to determine if they are impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, a combination of these factors, or anything else. However, with a clear picture, the mission team will soon come up with some interesting theories.
"These & # 39; stretch target observations & # 39; It was risky because there was a real chance that we would get only part or none of Ultima in the narrow field of view of the camera, "added Stern. "But the teams from science, operations and navigation have made it and the result is a field day for our science team! Some of the details that we now see on the surface of Ultima Thule are unlike any object we've studied so far. "
These images are not only the most detailed images of Ultima Thule, but also have the highest spatial resolution of images that have been taken so far (or perhaps always) by the mission New Horizons . Project scientist Hal Weaver of the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who also noted that the probe's encounter with the KBO was the most accurate flyby of a spacecraft.
When New Horizons made its history In the run-up to Pluto in 2015 (this was the first spacecraft in history), it passed 12,500 km (7,750 mi) of the planet's surface. This allowed the spaceship to capture the first truly detailed images of Pluto's surface, highlighting the geological history of the frozen world and the types of activities that are still taking place.
But during the flyby of Ultima Thule, the New Horizons of New Horizons was about three times closer than Pluto – a minimum distance of 3,500 km (2,200 mi ). This unprecedented precision was made possible by the ground campaigns that were conducted in 2017 and 2018 in Argentina, Senegal, South Africa and Colombia.
The European Space Agency's Gaia Observatory also gave the locations of the stars used during the occultation campaigns to aid the navigation of the mission. In the coming days, weeks, and months, the mission team will search for, before, during, and after its closest approach the data obtained from the probe to find additional clues to the origin and evolution of the first KBO ever discovered.
Of particular interest is the question of whether Ultima Thule can have Moonlets or a ring system. In addition to detailed images of surface features, these findings will help scientists learn more about this KBO. Not to mention how our solar system was created billions of years ago and has evolved since then. And in the next few years it is hoped that another rendezvous with an antique object will take place.
While we wait, watch this video of Ultima Thule's new high-resolution images of . New Horizons during the flyby, courtesy of NASA Video and the Mission Team New Horizons :
Further reading: NASA