Pic NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has peeped its next flyby target: Ultima Thule.
Ultima Thule is a small object floating amongst all the comets, asteroids, and icy rocks in the Kuiper Belt. It was discovered in June 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope, and was given the unexciting official name of (486958) 2014 MU69 before being renamed in a public contest.
As New Horizons continued on its journey past Pluto, it spied Ultima Thule on 16 August and used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to capture a series of images.
The picture might not look like much at first, but it’s impressive when you realize that it was taken from 172 million kilometers (107 million miles) away. It's also the most distant from the Sun image ever taken, breaking the record set by Voyager 1 for its famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth and New Horizons' own record in 2017 when it imaged Pluto.
The left picture is a composite image containing a background of stars. The right picture is a close up of the yellow region highlighted in the previous image. Ultima Thule is in the yellow cross hairs and is slightly above and to the left of a bright star. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
"The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist and LORRI principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
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“It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter – and easier to see – as the spacecraft gets closer.”
It’s a strange, dim object with an odd shape measuring over 30 kilometers in diameter. Scientists believe it may be a binary system or a contact binary, where two bodies have fused together giving it an unusual appearance. Comet 67P, known for its resemblance to a rubber duck, is also thought to be a contact binary.
New Horizons is expected to whizz by Ultima Thule on New Years Day, 1 January 2019. The flyby will mark the first time that scientists get a close up of a Kuiper Belt object other than Pluto. It will also be the furthest exploration of any body within the Solar System; a record previously reached when the spacecraft reached Pluto in 2015. ®