NASA’s New Horizons’ spacecraft beams back to Earth the latest and best image yet of Ultima Thule that it captured during its Jan. 1 flyby. The lighting of the image shows some of the striking details of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO).
New Horizons' Image Of Ultima Thule
The New Horizons spacecraft has beamed home the images it took of Ultima Thule during its historic New Year’s Day flyby. Using its wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera instrument, New Horizons took the image when it was 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) away from Ultima Thule. It was the first time a small KBO was explored by a spacecraft.
On Jan. 18 and 19 the spacecraft transmitted the images it took back to Earth, and scientists sharpened them through a process called deconvolution to enhance the details.
The image revealed the incredible details on the day/night boundary of the KBO, particularly some small pits about 0.4 miles (0.7 km) in diameter, as well as a large, round feature about 4 miles (7 km) across on the smaller lobe. It’s not yet clear if the said details are impact craters or if they resulted from other processes.
Also striking are the light and dark patterns on both lobes and the bright “collar” between the two. According to experts, this may reveal clues about how it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago.
“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, principal investigator.
Ultima Thule was first observed on June 26, 2014, when scientists used the Hubble Telescope to search for a post-Pluto, Kuiper Belt flyby target. It was initially called 2014 MU69, but it was eventually named Ultima Thule, which means “beyond the known world.”
Ultima Thule is in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune’s orbit, is about 18 miles (30 km) in diameter and is irregularly shaped. Not a lot is still known about the mysterious KBO, but scientists so far know that it is likely reddish in color because of the exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight for billions of years.