4 billion miles from home: NASA captures first close-up images of mysterious Ultima Thule

By Brian Lada, AccuWeather meteorologist and staff writer
January 07, 2019, 10:34:04 AM EST


NASA’s New Horizon’s space probe made history on New Year’s Day as it flew past a small, snowman-shaped object 4 billion miles away from Earth known as Ultima Thule.

At 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, New Horizons made its closest approach to Ultima Thule at a distance of around 2,200 miles. This is comparable to the distance from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States.

Shortly after buzzing by Ultima Thule, the space probe sent back its first images of the small world.

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

One of the first images of Ultima Thule taken by New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Ultima Thule compared to the size of Pluto. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)


"The first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object and the most distant exploration of any world in history is now history, but almost all of the data analysis lies in the future," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

This is the second time that New Horizons explored a distant world. In 2015, it captivated millions after sending back the first-ever close-up images of Pluto.

More images will be sent back to Earth in the coming months with high-resolution images not expected to be received until February. However, it will take much longer for New Horizons to send back all of the photos and data that it recorded.

“While the flyby was quick, it'll take ~20 months to downlink the full data set from the spacecraft, which is more than ~4 billion miles from the sun,” NASA said.

Even though New Horizons has only sent back a fraction of the data that it collected, scientists already have clues on how the oddly shaped object may have formed billions of years ago.

“The new images revealed Ultima Thule as a 'contact binary,' consisting of two connected spheres,” NASA said.

formation.jpeg

(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)


Sending a spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system was no easy feat for NASA’s Jet Proportion Laboratory.

New Horizons launched from Earth on Jan. 19, 2006, to begin its long trek to Pluto. However, Ultima Thule was not discovered until June 26, 2014, by the Hubble Space Telescope.

After the spacecraft explored Pluto in July 2015, scientists at NASA adjusted its course that set up its close encounter with Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day. This required extreme precision, in part due to its small size in comparison to Pluto.

"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space,” Stern said.

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The successful flyby will provide a plethora of data that will help scientists understand how our solar system formed over 4 billion years ago.

“The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation,” NASA said

“Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies,” NASA said.

ultima thule infographic


Now that New Horizons has passed Ultima Thule, scientists will begin to look for another object in the Kuiper Belt for the space probe to explore.

This could be challenging, especially since objects in this part of the solar system are very small and difficult to see, even with telescopes such as the Hubble.

One option to help find new objects would to be to use the camera on New Horizons, known as the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), to try to find nearby objects in the Kuiper Belt.

“LORRI could take hundreds or even thousands of photographs of the stars around the spacecraft. Rather than send those images back to Earth, it might be possible to program the computer to search for the best targets and only send home those images,“ SPACE.com said.

Eventually, New Horizons will finish its journey through the Kuiper Belt and travel toward interstellar space, and eventually leave our solar system.

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