NASA Probes Treks Deeper on Hunt for Moons

06 January, 2019, 19:57 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • The first colour image of Ultima Thule taken at a distance of 137,000 kilometres at 4:08 Universal Time on 1 January 2019 highlights its reddish surface. At left is an enhanced colour image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera produced

NASA got the first pictures from the interplanetary probe, New Horizons, has successfully flown past the most remote of the known objects in the Solar system.

A flyby of Ultima Thule, a small, icy world located in the outer reaches of the Solar system, has been successfully completed by NASA's New Horizons probe. "Meet Ultima Thule!" said lead investigator Alan Stern, doing little to hide his joy as he revealed a new sharper image of the cosmic body, taken at a distance as close as 17,000 miles with a resolution of 140 metres per pixel. There are hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members like Ultima, and their frigid state nearly certainly holds clues to how all planetary bodies came into being some 4.6 billion years ago.

That's a pretty big deal for planetary scientists, because Ultima Thule can tell us a lot about what our solar system looked like in its very early years. The object, which is one of the farthest we've ever identified, was encountered by the spacecraft a staggering 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth. The previous record was also set by New Horizons during its flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015. Jeff Moore, head of NASA Ames' geology and geophysics team describes the speeds best, stating, "if you were in a vehicle collision... you wouldn't bother to fill out insurance forms". That's similar to potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). "Our current theory as to why Ultima Thule is red is the irradiation of exotic ices".

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"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000mph (51,000km/h) and all that had to happen just right", the SwRI scientist said.

For the next several days, data transmission will be halted temporarily because of the sun's position smack between Earth and Ultima Thule, creating radio interference. The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft. Fresh stereo pictures downloaded to Earth in the past day do show divots on the surface of MU69, but Stern pointed out that there aren't enough shadows to see if there are craters for sure.

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