New Horizons sends highest-resolution image yet of Ultima Thule

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NASA researchers have managed to capture the highest resolution image yet of Ultima Thule, the oldest object ever researched by spacecraft. The New Horizons probe visited the object on New Year’s Day and obtained information on its size and shape.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day. This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close — and it’s the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. The object is so old and pristine that it’s essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.


Based on the data that has come back so far from the New Horizons mission and its images of 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule), we’ve been able to construct a 3D model of what this object looks like. Its two-lobes appearance, with a smooth, reflective neck, reveals a comet-like nature that is still frozen completely, having never had its volatiles sufficiently heated by the Sun.

The higher resolution brings out a many surface features that weren’t readily apparent in earlier images. Among them are a few bright, enigmatic, roughly circular terrain patches. In addition, near the terminator (the boundary between the sunny and dark sides of the body) many small, dark pits are better dissolved. “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team,” said John Spencer, deputy project scientist from SwRI.


A high-resolution image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reveals a large body consisting of two lobes connected by a thinner neck. Similar to Halley’s comet or 2014 MU69, comet Hartley 2 shows a ‘contact binary’ configuration. We now believe this is common among Kuiper belt objects.ESA/ROSETTA/NAVCAM

New Horizons fly three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 2,200 miles of it and supply a better look at the surface. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other designed observations of more objects — but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

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