Tuesday, 17 September, 2019

First high-resolution images of Ultima Thule released

Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary. Credit NASA
Sandra Phillips | 13 September, 2019, 20:38

New Horizon's photographs are not only an achievement in documenting the "the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft" according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a NASA briefing.

More information continues to be downloaded, including topography, atmosphere, and composition of Ultima Thule. The rotation variables here are figured by watching the light curve given by Ultima Thule - it's most certainly a spinning set of buddies. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday. This would indicate that Ultima Thule's either never had a run-in with another space body and/or was broken off of some other larger body of material so recently that no major added damage has yet occurred. Then the spheres spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched - as slowly as parking a vehicle here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour - and stuck together.

This photo is a dramatic improvement on the images we've had in the days before the flyby, and it answers one of the biggest questions scientists have had about the asteroid: is it one object or two?

In a lengthy update by the New Horizons team, the group boasts that New Horizons sent back a signal to its handlers letting them know that it had filled its on-board recorders with a wealth of science data that it collected as it zoomed past Ultima Thule.

Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

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In the meantime, get ready for even better images and science tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute and so forth have begun analyzing all aspects of Ultima Thule, including its most basic elements - like its number of hills, ridges, impact craters, etcetera. "10, No. 4", Ultima Thule was just across the border from the Choctaw Nation in Arkansas and had a post office, blacksmith shop, general store and a gin. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.

"We have far less than 1 per cent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons, already down on the ground".

The 140-meter-resolution image, taken 28,000 kilometers from MU69 half an hour before the spacecraft's closest approach, reveals two bumpy, reddish spheres, with one three times the volume of the other.

"This is fundamentally important because it's our first look at a real Kuiper belt object - in this case, a planetesimal - the thing that these small planets were built out of", Stern said. It's located in the Kuiper Belt, an icy region of our solar system beyond the orbit of the major planets.

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