New Horizons team unravels the many mysteries of Ultima Thule

phys.org | 3/18/2019 | Staff
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The farthest object ever explored is slowly revealing its secrets, as scientists piece together the puzzles of Ultima Thule – the Kuiper Belt object NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past on New Year's Day, four billion miles from Earth.

Analyzing the data New Horizons has been sending home since the flyby of Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69), mission scientists are learning more about the development, geology and composition of this ancient relic of solar system formation. The team discussed those findings today at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ultima - Thule - Contact - Approach - Pictures

Ultima Thule is the first unquestionably primordial contact binary ever explored. Approach pictures of Ultima Thule hinted at a strange, snowman-like shape for the binary, but further analysis of images, taken near closest approach – New Horizons came to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) – have uncovered just how unusual the KBO's shape really is. At 22 miles (35 kilometers) long, Ultima Thule consists of a large, flat lobe (nicknamed "Ultima") connected to a smaller, rounder lobe (nicknamed "Thule").

This strange shape is the biggest surprise, so far, of the flyby. "We've never seen anything like this anywhere in the solar system," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "It is sending the planetary science community back to the drawing board to understand how planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – form."

Ultima - Thule - Clearest - Look - Era

Because it is so well preserved, Ultima Thule is offering our clearest look back to the era of planetesimal accretion and the earliest stages of planetary formation. Apparently Ultima Thule's two lobes once orbited each other, like many so-called binary worlds in the Kuiper Belt, until something brought them together in a "gentle" merger.

"This fits with general ideas of the beginning of our solar system," said William...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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