New Horizons Spacecraft Finally Explores the Ultima Thule

New Horizons Spacecraft Finally Explores the Ultima Thule

New Horizons came within 3,500 kilometers of 2014 MU69 on New Year Day.

The New Horizons Spacecraft of NASA had a closer look at the Ultima Thule on 1st January 2019. This was a historic moment for humanity as it is now the most distant object ever explored by us. The official name of this celestial body is 2014 MU69 but it was assigned the title of ‘Ultima Thule’, a Latin phrase which means a place beyond the known world. It was first discovered in 2014 by some members of the New Horizons team. They used the Hubble Space Telescope of NASA for making this discovery. Having said that, it was incredibly faint in these observations due to its extraordinary distance and nothing much could be determined about its characteristics.

In 2016, it was found that it is red in color. A year later, scientists were able to get an estimate about its size and announced that it is around 30 kilometers across. They also figured out that it has an irregular shape when it passed in front of a star during an event called ‘Stellar Occultation’. The researching team went on to calculate the reflectivity of 2014 MU69 through its brightness and size. They concluded that it is only about 10% reflective which means that it is as dark as garden dirt. Despite all that, a lot of information about this object was missing and scientists wanted to extract that through the New Horizons Mission. Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator of the New Horizons, referred to these hopes (prior to its arrival) and said,

New Horizons will map Ultima, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere. It will make other studies, too, such as measuring Ultima’s temperature and perhaps even its mass. In the space of one 72-hour period, Ultima will be transformed from a pinpoint of light — a dot in the distance — to a fully explored world. It should be breathtaking!

2014 MU69 is orbiting in a circular orbit, right in the center of the Kuiper Belt. The shape of its orbit indicates that it was born at its current location and has not moved away from the Sun over time. Researchers consider this birthplace important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these regions are time capsules of the ancient past because the temperatures in these parts are barely above Absolute Zero. Similarly, Ultima Thule provides information about that portion of the Solar System which could help astronomers to enhance their understanding about that region of the universe.

New Horizons was moving at a speed of around 51,000 kilometers per hour when it came as close as 3,500 kilometers to the Ultima Thule. The spacecraft collected a significant amount of data during its flyby but has been able to send only a fraction of that to the waiting team members on Earth. However, the results have already starting to come as the researchers involved in this mission have made some important deductions about this rock.

The very first observation that the researchers made was that Ultima Thule is composed of 2 spherical lobes. The researching team mentioned that both these lobes began their lives as independent objects but turned swiftly into a ‘Reddish Snowman’. Initial models predicted that this object used to complete one rotation in 3 to 4 hours during the earliest days of our solar system. On the other hand, the observations by the New Horizons show that Ultima takes about 15 hours to complete a spin. Mark Showalter, a Co-investigator of New Horizons from the SETI Institute, elaborated a possible explanation in the following words:

So, how did they slow down? Well, the best way to understand that is if there were another moon, or two or three, orbiting this system. Essentially, what those moons would do is put the brakes on the two bodies in the middle — slow them down.”

An interesting thing here is that the mission team has ruled out the possibility of any sizable moons within 160 kilometers from 2014 MU69. Similarly, no such moon can exist at a distance of 800 kilometers or more from the Ultima Thule. However, the middle zone is still a strong contender for satellites and Showalter acknowledged that in his news conference on the 3rd of January. He expressed the hopes of finding at least one moon and explained its importance by saying,

Any moon at all, on any orbit at all, will tell us the mass and the density to pretty decent usable precision. And so we’re very, very excited about that prospect.”

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