Earlier this year, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past one of the Kuiper Belt objects, 2014 MU69. Now, the mission team has published the first profile of this world.
A detailed study of the “snowman” object (2014 MU69) – which orbits 4 billion miles from the sun in an area filled with icy material known as Kuiper Belt – could help us learn more about our solar system’s formation.
“We’re looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past,” Stern said in a news release. “There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation.”
The flyby of Ultima Thule is the first investigation by any space mission. For humans, it is also the farthest exploration of an object.
The distant world is an object far more complex than expected.
Initial analysis of the data found that Ultima Thule is a contact binary with the two lobes looking like a walnut. The broader, flatter lobe, known as “Ultima,” measures roughly 13.6 by 12.4 miles wide and just 4.3 miles thick. Ultima is connected to a smaller, somewhat rounder lobe (nicknamed “Thule”) which is 8.7 by 8.7 by 6.2 miles. Put together, the two lobes measure about 22 miles from end to end. The unusual shape might be a result of how they formed billions of years ago.
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However, scientists are investigating a range of surface features on Ultima Thule, such as bright spots and patches, hills and troughs, and craters and pits on Ultima Thule. That might indicate that the cosmic walnut coalesced from an assortment of smaller planetesimals.
“Whether they are a relic of Ultima’s formation or a result of a later evolution is unclear,” the authors write.
The largest depression is a 5-mile-wide impact crater. Scientists call it Maryland, in honor of the state where New Horizons’ mission control operates (at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, to be exact). The crater likely formed from an impact.
2014 MU69 is very red – redder than its neighbor Pluto. Modification of the organic materials on Ultima Thule’s surface gave its reddish color. New Horizons scientists found evidence for methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule’s surface – a mixture very different from most icy objects explored previously by spacecraft.
The New Horizons spacecraft will continue to transmit data from the flyby and will do so until the late summer 2020.
The spacecraft is now 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth, getting deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 33,000 miles (53,000 kilometers) per hour.