Ultima Thule: First image marks historic moment for space exploration

2 Jan 2019

Image: © Tyler Hulett/Stock.adobe.com

NASA has entered 2019 on quite the high note with the flyby of the minor planet Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever to be seen up close.

As the New Year’s Day parties continued across the globe on 1 January, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was entering the history books.

Familiar to many as the spacecraft that taught us so much about the dwarf planet Pluto and its ‘heart’ on its surface, New Horizons has now taken photos of another distant object, Ultima Thule.

Located more than 6bn km from the sun, the minor planet is an object that NASA researchers believe to be an important piece of evidence in the investigation of how our solar system formed, and is the farthest ever observed up close by humankind.

Because of the vast distance from here to the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, the time it takes large amounts of data to be sent back to Earth is quite long, taking many months to receive the full data package. In the meantime, NASA has released a blurry image of Ultima Thule, revealing some interesting discoveries about its shape and trajectory.

The shot, taken at a distance of just 3,500km from it surface, shows a bowling pin-like object with dimensions of approximately 32km by 16km. However, because the image is so blurry, it is still possible that it is actually two objects orbiting one another.

GIF of the blurry Ultima Thule object rotating.

This sequence of three images, received on 31 December 2018 and taken by the LORRI camera on board New Horizons at 70 and 85 minutes apart, illustrates the rotation of Ultima Thule. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Few years to go

Initial flyby data has also revealed our first discovery about Ultima Thule, showing that it is spinning like a propeller, with its axis pointing approximately towards New Horizons. This helps explain why earlier images taken at a greater distance showed no difference in brightness as it rotated.

“New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history,” said principal investigator Alan Stern of the New Horizons team. “The data we have look fantastic and we’re already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out, the data will just get better and better!”

The team said that over the course of the next 20 months, it will continue to download higher-resolution images and other scientific data. However, this still won’t be the end of its mission, as NASA hopes that it will continue to explore the distant Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt until at least 2021.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic