The flyby of Ultima Thule was the farthest exploration of an object in history – nearly 6.4 billion km from Earth.
NASAs New Horizons mission team has published the first image of the farthest world ever explored — a planetary building block and Kuiper Belt object clicked during New Years 2019 flyby of Ultima Thule which looks like a human being in deep meditation.
Called “2014 MU69”, the object — detailed of which are published in the May 17 issue of journal Science — looks like a human being sitting in a meditative pose, an ancient relic from the era of planet formation.
The flyby of Ultima Thule was the farthest exploration of an object in history – nearly 6.4 billion km from Earth. The object is a contact binary, with two distinctly differently-shaped lobes.
At about 36 km long, Ultima Thule consists of a large, strangely flat lobe (nicknamed Ultima) connected to a smaller, somewhat rounder lobe (nicknamed Thule), at a juncture nicknamed “the neck.”
“How the two lobes got their unusual shape is an unanticipated mystery that likely relates to how they formed billions of years ago,” said NASA.
The lobes likely once orbited each other, like many so-called binary worlds in the Kuiper Belt, until some process brought them together in what scientists have shown to be a “gentle” merger.
The alignment of the axes of Ultima and Thule indicates that before the merger the two lobes must have become tidally locked, meaning that the same sides always faced each other as they orbited around the same point.
“We’re looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. “There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation”.
New Horizons researchers are also investigating a range of surface features on Ultima Thule, such as bright spots and patches, hills and troughs, and craters and pits.
The largest depression is a 8 km wide feature the team has nicknamed Maryland crater – which likely formed from an impact.
Some smaller pits on the Kuiper Belt object, however, may have been created by material falling into underground spaces, or due to exotic ices going from a solid to a gas (called sublimation) and leaving pits in its place.
Ultima Thule is very red – redder even than much larger, 2,400-km wide Pluto, which New Horizons explored at the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt in 2015.
Its reddish hue is believed to be caused by modification of the organic materials on its surface.
New Horizons scientists found evidence for methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule’s surface – a mixture very different from most icy objects explored previously by spacecraft.
The New Horizons spacecraft is now 6.6 billion km from Earth, operating normally and speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 53,000 km per hour.