If everything continues as planned, New Horizons will pass the Ultima Thule asteroid on January 1st. The Ultima Thule is a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) with a diameter of about 31 miles (1/3) or 1/60 of the diameter of Pluto. While New Horizons is about three times closer to UT than ever before at Pluto, the difference in size between the two has an obvious impact on what our cameras will be able to do. What we do know is that scientists already have a mystery in their hands when we race on the rocks.
Ultima Thule is an irregularly shaped object. It can be a binary pair of objects that includes a contact binary pair: two different objects that can be superficially connected by boulders, but have significant gaps between the spacings of the material. The comet 67P / Churyumov – Gerasimenko investigated by Rosetta is a heap of rubble, and the Marsmond Phobos is also suspected. This should mean that we see significant differences in the light curve reflected by Ultima Thule as we approach, and New Horizons is close enough to see these differences well. Since Ultima Thule is not a ball, we should see light curve differences caused by differences in the reflection of light from its irregular surface. We are not.
"It really is a mystery," said New Horizons chief investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "I call the first puzzle of Ultima – why did it I'm assuming that the detailed flyby images will contain many more secrets in the near future, but I did not expect that, and so soon. "
There are several suggested ones Explanations for this One possible explanation is that the pole of the planet is pointed directly at New Ho. This would explain why the light fluctuates as much as it should, another is that Ultima Thule is surrounded by a cloud of dust, the shifts in her Light curve obscures and prevents us from seeing what is really happening.
Researchers point out that this is possible but would require a stronger source of energy than what Ultima Thu stands for so far available from the sun. As a tiny object, no internal heat source is known that would provide the necessary energy. Finally, UT could be surrounded by a series of tiny moonlets that collectively block shifts in their perceived light curve. Dr. Anne Verbiscer, a member of the New Horizons team at the University of Virginia, notes, "If each moon has its own light curve, they could together create a jumbled overlay of light curves that makes New Horizons look like Ultima has a small light curve. Although this explanation is also plausible, it has no parallel in all the other bodies of our solar system. "
Either way, we should know it in a few days. The focus on Ultima Thule as a research goal has the advantage of being as close as possible to an archetypal rock that has been floating in the air since the formation of the solar system. In studying its properties, we should be able to see into the initial conditions of the solar system before was a solar system.
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