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  NASA's New Horizons to Pluto, Ultima Thule (Page 3)

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Author Topic:   NASA's New Horizons to Pluto, Ultima Thule
Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
New Horizons Captures Record-Breaking Images in the Kuiper Belt

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft recently turned its telescopic camera toward a field of stars, snapped an image – and made history.

The routine calibration frame of the "Wishing Well" galactic open star cluster, made by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Dec. 5, was taken when New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers, or 40.9 astronomical units) from Earth – making it, for a time, the farthest image ever made from Earth.

New Horizons was even farther from home than NASA's Voyager 1 when it captured the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth. That picture was part of a composite of 60 images looking back at the solar system, on Feb. 14, 1990, when Voyager was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers, or about 40.5 astronomical units [AU]) from Earth. Voyager 1's cameras were turned off shortly after that portrait, leaving its distance record unchallenged for more than 27 years.

LORRI broke its own record just two hours later with images of Kuiper Belt objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 – further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you're covering more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) of space each day.

Distance and Speed

New Horizons is just the fifth spacecraft to speed beyond the outer planets, so many of its activities set distance records. On Dec. 9 it carried out the most-distant course-correction maneuver ever, as the mission team guided the spacecraft toward a close encounter with a KBO named 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. That New Year's flight past MU69 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history, happening one billion miles beyond the Pluto system – which New Horizons famously explored in July 2015.

During its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, which began in 2017, New Horizons is aiming to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and "Centaurs," former KBOs in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets. Mission scientists study the images to determine the objects' shapes and surface properties, and to check for moons and rings. The spacecraft also is making nearly continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path.

The New Horizons spacecraft is healthy and is currently in hibernation. Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will bring the spacecraft out of its electronic slumber on June 4 and begin a series of system checkouts and other activities to prepare New Horizons for the MU69 encounter.

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NASA release
New Horizons Wakes for Historic Kuiper Belt Flyby

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is back "awake" and being prepared for the farthest planetary encounter in history – a New Year's Day 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Cruising through the Kuiper Belt more than 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from Earth, New Horizons had been in resource-saving hibernation mode since Dec. 21. Radio signals confirming that New Horizons had executed on-board computer commands to exit hibernation reached mission operations at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, via NASA's Deep Space Network at 2:12 a.m. EDT on June 5.

Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of APL reported that the spacecraft was in good health and operating normally, with all systems coming back online as expected.

Over the next three days, the mission team will collect navigation tracking data (using signals from the Deep Space Network) and send the first of many commands to New Horizons' onboard computers to begin preparations for the Ultima flyby; lasting about two months, those flyby preparations include memory updates, Kuiper Belt science data retrieval, and a series of subsystem and science-instrument checkouts. In August, the team will command New Horizons to begin making distant observations of Ultima, images that will help the team refine the spacecraft's course to fly by the object.

"Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August," said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

New Horizons made a historic flight past Pluto and its moons on July 14, 2015, returning data that has transformed our view of these intriguing worlds near the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt. Since then, New Horizons has been speeding deeper into this distant region, observing other Kuiper Belt objects and measuring the properties of the heliosphere while heading toward the flyby of Ultima Thule -- about a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto – on Jan. 1, 2019.

New Horizons is now approximately 162 million miles (262 million kilometers) – less than twice the distance between Earth and the Sun – from Ultima, speeding 760,200 miles (1,223,420 kilometers closer each day.

Long-Distance Numbers

On June 5, 2018, New Horizons was nearly 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion kilometers) from Earth. From there – more than 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun – a radio signal sent from the spacecraft at light speed reached Earth 5 hours and 40 minutes later.

The 165-day hibernation that ended June 4 was the second of two such "rest" periods for the spacecraft before the Ultima Thule flyby. The spacecraft will now remain active until late 2020, after it has transmitted all data from the Ultima encounter back to Earth and completed other Kuiper Belt science observations.

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NASA release
Ultima in View: NASA's New Horizons Makes First Detection of Kuiper Belt Flyby Target

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has made its first detection of its next flyby target, the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, more than four months ahead of its New Year's 2019 close encounter.

Above: The figure on the left is a composite image produced by adding 48 different exposures from the News Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), each with an exposure time of 29.967 seconds, taken on Aug. 16, 2018. The predicted position of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule is at the center of the yellow box, and is indicated by the red crosshairs, just above and left of a nearby star that is approximately 17 times brighter than Ultima.

At right is a magnified view of the region in the yellow box, after subtraction of a background star field "template" taken by LORRI in September 2017 before it could detect the object itself. Ultima is clearly detected in this star-subtracted image and is very close to where scientists predicted, indicating to the team that New Horizons is being targeted in the right direction.

The many artifacts in the star-subtracted image are caused either by small mis-registrations between the new LORRI images and the template, or by intrinsic brightness variations of the stars. At the time of these observations, Ultima Thule was 107 million miles (172 million kilometers) from the New Horizons spacecraft and 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from the Sun.

Mission team members were thrilled – if not a little surprised – that New Horizons' telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was able to see the small, dim object while still more than 100 million miles away, and against a dense background of stars. Taken Aug. 16 and transmitted home through NASA's Deep Space Network over the following days, the set of 48 images marked the team's first attempt to find Ultima with the spacecraft's own cameras.

"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 Laurel, Maryland. "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."

This first detection is important because the observations New Horizons makes of Ultima over the next four months will help the mission team refine the spacecraft's course toward a closest approach to Ultima, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, 2019. That Ultima was where mission scientists expected it to be – in precisely the spot they predicted, using data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope – indicates the team already has a good idea of Ultima's orbit.

The Ultima flyby will be the first-ever close-up exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object and the farthest exploration of any planetary body in history, shattering the record New Horizons itself set at Pluto in July 2015 by about 1 billion miles. These images are also the most distant from the Sun ever taken, breaking the record set by Voyager 1's "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth taken in 1990. (New Horizons set the record for the most distant image from Earth in December 2017.)

"Our team worked hard to determine if Ultima was detected by LORRI at such a great distance, and the result is a clear yes," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima's doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!"

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NASA release
New Horizons Sets Up for New Year's Flyby of Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft carried out a short engine burn on Oct. 3 to home in on the location and timing of its New Year's flyby of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Above: At left, a composite optical navigation image, produced by combining 20 images from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) acquired on Sept. 24. The center photo is a composite optical navigation image of Ultima Thule after subtracting the background star field; star field subtraction is an important component of optical navigation image processing since it isolates Ultima from nearby stars. At right is a magnified view of the star-subtracted image, showing the close proximity and relative agreement between the observed and predicted locations of Ultima. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/KinetX)

Word from the spacecraft that it had successfully performed the 3½-minute maneuver reached mission operations at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, at around 10:20 p.m. EDT. The maneuver slightly tweaked the spacecraft's trajectory and bumped its speed by 2.1 meters per second – just about 4.6 miles per hour – keeping it on track to fly past Ultima (officially named 2014 MU69) at 12:33 am EST on Jan. 1, 2019.

"Thanks to this maneuver, we're right down the middle of the pike and on time for the farthest exploration of worlds in history – more than a billion miles beyond Pluto," said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. "It almost sounds like science fiction, but it's not. Go New Horizons!"

At 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth, Ultima Thule will be the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft. New Horizons itself was about 3.95 billion miles (6.35 billion kilometers) from home when it carried out Wednesday's trajectory correction maneuver (TCM), the farthest course-correction ever performed.

This was the first Ultima targeting maneuver that used pictures taken by New Horizons itself to determine the spacecraft's position relative to the Kuiper Belt object. These "optical navigation" images – gathered by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – provide direct information of Ultima's position relative to New Horizons, and help the team determine where the spacecraft is headed.

The New Horizons team designed the TCM by determining the current trajectories of the spacecraft and its target, and then calculating the maneuvering required to put the spacecraft at the desired "aim point" for the flyby – 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from Ultima at closest approach.

"The recent navigation images have helped us confirm that Ultima is within about 300 miles [500 kilometers] of its expected position, which is exceptionally good," said Fred Pelletier, New Horizons navigation team chief, of KinetX Aerospace, Inc. "We're excited for the flyby."

Confirming that Ultima is at its expected location is an important and somewhat unique aspect of this flyby. "Since we are flying very fast and close to the surface of Ultima, approximately four times closer than the Pluto flyby in July 2015, the timing of the flyby must be very accurate," said Derek Nelson, New Horizons optical navigation lead, also from KinetX. "The images help to determine the position and timing of the flyby, but we must also trust the prior estimate of Ultima's position and velocity to ensure a successful flyby. These first images give us confidence that Ultima is where we expected it to be, and the timing of the flyby will be accurate."

The spacecraft is just 69 million miles (112 million kilometers) from Ultima, closing in at 32,256 miles (51,911 kilometers) per hour. Pelletier said the team will eventually have to guide the spacecraft into an approximately 75 by 200-mile (120 by 320-kilometer) "box" and predict the flyby to within 140 seconds. "There is definitely more work to do," he said. "But we are taking pictures of the most distant world ever explored. How cool is that?"

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NASA release
NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft Takes the Inside Course to Ultima Thule

Mission Team Sees No Moons or Rings Near Ultima, Opts for Primary Flyby Path

With no apparent hazards in its way, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been given a "go" to stay on its optimal path to Ultima Thule as it speeds closer to a Jan. 1 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object a billion miles beyond Pluto – the farthest planetary flyby in history.

Above: This image was made by combining hundreds images taken between August and mid-December by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). It has been colored using deep blue for the darkest regions and yellow for the brightest. Ultima Thule is the bright yellow spot in the middle. The two possible flyby distances for New Horizons are indicated by the two concentric circles. The mission has decided to fly along the closer path, toward the target point marked by an X. Individual images contain many background stars, but by combining images taken at different distances from Ultima Thule, most of the stars can be identified and removed. However, some of them leave behind traces, which can be seen as faint circles radiating away from the target point. (NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

After almost three weeks of sensitive searches for rings, small moons and other potential hazards around the object, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern gave the "all clear" for the spacecraft to remain on a path that takes it about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from Ultima, instead of a hazard-avoiding detour that would have pushed it three times farther out. With New Horizons blazing though space at some 31,500 miles (50,700 kilometers) per hour, a particle as small as a grain of rice could be lethal to the piano-sized probe.

The dozen-member New Horizons hazard watch team had been using the spacecraft's most powerful telescopic camera, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), to look for potential hazards. The decision on whether to keep New Horizons on its original course or divert to a more distant flyby, which would have produced less-detailed data, had to be made this week since the last opportunity to maneuver the spacecraft onto another trajectory was today (Dec. 18).

New Horizons formed its hazard watch team in 2011 to prepare for its Pluto flyby, addressing concerns that Pluto's newly discovered small moons could spread dangerous debris across New Horizons' path. An intense search turned up no potential mission-ending risks; the team opted for the original flight plan and New Horizons safely carried out its historic exploration of the Pluto system in July 2015.

This year, the hazard watch team has been conducting similar analyses on the approach to Ultima Thule, which is officially designated 2014 MU69. Any ring structure reflecting even just five 10-millionths of the sunlight falling on it would have been visible in the images, as would any moons more than about two miles (three kilometers) across, but the team saw none. Scientists will continue to look for rings or moons that are very close to Ultima, but those would not pose a risk.

"Our team feels like we have been riding along with the spacecraft, as if we were mariners perched on the crow's nest of a ship, looking out for dangers ahead," said hazards team lead Mark Showalter, of the SETI Institute. "The team was in complete consensus that the spacecraft should remain on the closer trajectory, and mission leadership adopted our recommendation."

"The spacecraft is now targeted for the optimal flyby, over three times closer than we flew to Pluto," added Stern. "Ultima, here we come!"

New Horizons will make its historic close approach to Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1 — the first ever flyby of a Kuiper Belt object.

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NASA release
Ultima Thule's First Mystery

New Horizons scientists puzzled by lack of a 'light curve' from their Kuiper Belt flyby target

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is bearing down on Ultima Thule, its New Year's flyby target in the far away Kuiper Belt. Among its approach observations over the past three months, the spacecraft has been taking hundreds of images to measure Ultima's brightness and how it varies as the object rotates.

Those measurements have produced the mission's first mystery about Ultima. Even though scientists determined in 2017 that the Kuiper Belt object isn't shaped like a sphere – that it is probably elongated or maybe even two objects – they haven't seen the repeated pulsations in brightness that they'd expect from a rotating object of that shape. The periodic variation in brightness during every rotation produces what scientists refer to as a light curve.

"It's really a puzzle," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. "I call this Ultima's first puzzle – why does it have such a tiny light curve that we can't even detect it? I expect the detailed flyby images coming soon to give us many more mysteries, but I did not expect this, and so soon."

What could explain the tiny, still undetected light curve? New Horizons science team members have different ideas.

"It's possible that Ultima's rotation pole is aimed right at or close to the spacecraft," said Marc Buie, also of the Southwest Research Institute. That explanation is a natural, he said, but it requires the special circumstance of a particular orientation of Ultima.

"Another explanation," said the SETI Institute's Mark Showalter, "is that Ultima may be surrounded by a cloud of dust that obscures its light curve, much the way a comet's coma often overwhelms the light reflected by its central nucleus." That explanation is plausible, Showalter added, but such a coma would require some source of heat to generate, and Ultima is too far away for the Sun's feeble light to do the trick.

"An even more bizarre scenario is one in which Ultima is surrounded by many tiny tumbling moons," said University of Virginia's Anne Verbiscer, a New Horizons assistant project scientist. "If each moon has its own light curve, then together they could create a jumbled superposition of light curves that make it look to New Horizons like Ultima has a small light curve." While that explanation is also plausible, she adds, it has no parallel in all the other bodies of our solar system.

So, what's the answer?

"It's hard to say which of these ideas is right," Stern said. "Perhaps its even something we haven't even thought of. In any case, we'll get to the bottom of this puzzle soon – New Horizons will swoop over Ultima and take high-resolution images on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, and the first of those images will be available on Earth just a day later. When we see those high-resolution images, we'll know the answer to Ultima's vexing, first puzzle. Stay tuned!"

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory release
New Horizons Spacecraft Homing in on Kuiper Belt Target

Only hours from completing a historic flyby of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on course and ready to gather scientific data on the small object's geology, composition, atmosphere and more. Closest approach takes place in the early morning hours of New Year's Day — 12:33 a.m. EST — marking the event as the most distant exploration of worlds ever completed by humankind.

Above: Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima's shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima's estimated size of 20 miles (30 kilometers), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). New Horizons was approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) from Ultima when this image was taken on Dec. 30, 2018. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

After a 13-year journey, the piano-sized spacecraft has covered a distance of four billion miles to reach Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt — a donut-shaped region of ancient, rocky bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. This vast region of space contains potentially billions of small objects left over from the formation of the solar system that could hold keys to understanding planetary formation.

"Even less than a day away, Ultima Thule remains an enigma to us, but the final countdown has begun," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space."

New Horizons launched in January 2006 on a nine-year mission to Pluto, which it reached in July 2015, taking numerous pictures and scientific measurements as it flew by the dwarf planet. The spacecraft returned stunning images of an icy landscape and an eccentric array of moons that were previously only imagined. NASA later extended the mission to include additional Kuiper Belt studies.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, New Horizons team members discovered 2014 MU69 in the path of the spacecraft which was selected as the next mission target. This time, however, the spacecraft will fly three times closer to the target than it did to Pluto. Although not the official name for MU69, the name Ultima Thule was selected from an online naming contest that translates to "beyond the known world."

Now a billion miles beyond Pluto, New Horizons will fly by Ultima just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from the object's surface, providing the first close-up look at what scientists consider to be one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.

From New Horizons' location, a radio transmission traveling at light speed requires just over six hours to reach Earth. The spacecraft will not be in contact with Earth during close approach but is programmed to send a signal home on the morning of Jan. 1 to indicate its health and whether it recorded all the expected data. The mission team expects the data to be returned over the next 20 months, with an additional year of data analysis and archiving.

"The spacecraft is in great health and the team is ready," said Helene Winters, New Horizons project manager from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. "This flyby is the culmination of years of careful planning and hard work, and we can't wait to transform Ultima into a real world."

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collectSPACE
New year, New Horizons: NASA probe flies by distant Ultima Thule

NASA entered the new year with a new horizon, the farthest-ever encounter with a planetary object.

The agency's New Horizons probe, which in 2015 was the first to zip past Pluto, flew by the even more distant small world "Ultima Thule" (officially 2014 MU69) on New Year's Day (Tuesday, Jan. 1). It was the first close pass by a spacecraft of a Kuiper Belt object, one of the primordial building blocks of the planets in our solar system.

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory release
New Horizons Successfully Explores Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year's Day, ushering in the era of exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system.

Above: At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane)

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again. In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, today New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "This is what leadership in space exploration is all about."

Signals confirming the spacecraft is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) today at 10:29 a.m. EST, almost exactly 10 hours after New Horizons' closest approach to the object.

"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history — 4 billion miles from the Sun," said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out the data will just get better and better!"

Images taken during the spacecraft's approach — which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST — revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima's mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn't appear to vary as it rotated. The team has still not determined the rotation period.

As the science data began its initial return to Earth, mission team members and leadership reveled in the excitement of the first exploration of this distant region of space.

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer," said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel. "This flyby marks a first for all of us — APL, NASA, the nation and the world — and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point."

"Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement. This is exploration at its finest," said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. We're looking forward to seeing the next chapter."

The New Horizons spacecraft will continue downloading images and other data in the days and months ahead, completing the return of all science data over the next 20 months. When New Horizons launched in January 2006, George W. Bush was in the White House, Twitter had just been launched and Time Magazine's Person of the Year was "you — all the worldwide web users." Nine years into its journey, the spacecraft began its exploration of the Kuiper Belt with a flyby of Pluto and its moons. Almost 13 years after the launch, the spacecraft will continue its exploration of the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021. Team members plan to propose more Kuiper Belt exploration.

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory release
NASA's New Horizons Mission Reveals Entirely New Kind of World

Scientists from NASA's New Horizons mission released the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored — the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule. Its remarkable appearance, unlike anything we've seen before, illuminates the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago.

Above: This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

"This flyby is a historic achievement," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space. New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation."

The new images — taken from as close as 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) on approach — revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary," consisting of two connected spheres. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere "Thule" (9 miles/14 kilometers across).

The team says that the two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender.

Above: The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface. At left is an enhanced color image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. The center image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object. (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time," said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead. "Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy."

Data from the New Year's Day flyby will continue to arrive over the next weeks and months, with much higher resolution images yet to come.

"In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule — and the solar system," said Helene Winters, New Horizons Project Manager.

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory release
New Ultima Thule Discoveries from NASA's New Horizons

Data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which explored Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule earlier this week, is yielding scientific discoveries daily. Among the findings made by the mission science team in the past day are:

  • Initial data analysis has found no evidence of rings or satellites larger than one mile in diameter orbiting Ultima Thule.
  • Data analysis has also not yet found any evidence of an atmosphere.
  • The color of Ultima Thule matches the color of similar worlds in the Kuiper Belt, as determined by telescopic measurements.
  • The two lobes of Ultima Thule — the first Kuiper Belt contact binary visited — are nearly identical in color. This matches what we know about binary systems which haven't come into contact with each other, but rather orbit around a shared point of gravity.
"The first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object and the most distant exploration of any world in history is now history, but almost all of the data analysis lies in the future," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Above: In this animated GIF of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule made from two images taken 38 minutes apart, the "Thule" lobe is closest to the New Horizons spacecraft. As Ultima Thule is seen to rotate, hints of the topography can be perceived. The images were taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at 4:23 and 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019 from respective ranges of 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers) and 17,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with respective original scales of 1017 feet (310 meters) and 459 feet (140 meters) per pixel. (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

Data transmission from New Horizons will pause for about a week while the spacecraft passes behind the sun as seen from here on Earth. Data transmission resumes Jan. 10, starting a 20-month download of the spacecraft's remaining scientific treasures.

"Those of us on the science team can't wait to begin to start digging into that treasure trove," said Stern. New Horizons completed the farthest flyby in history when it came within about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, zooming past the object at more than 32,000 miles (51,000 kilometers) per hour.

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory release
New Horizons' Newest and Best-Yet View of Ultima Thule

The wonders – and mysteries – of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 continue to multiply as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft beams home new images of its New Year's Day 2019 flyby target.

This image, taken during the historic Jan. 1 flyby of what's informally known as Ultima Thule, is the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system – and the first small "KBO" ever explored by a spacecraft.

Obtained with the wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) component of New Horizons' Ralph instrument, this image was taken when the KBO was 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) from the spacecraft, at 05:26 UT (12:26 a.m. EST) on Jan. 1 – just seven minutes before closest approach. With an original resolution of 440 feet (135 meters) per pixel, the image was stored in the spacecraft's data memory and transmitted to Earth on Jan. 18-19. Scientists then sharpened the image to enhance fine detail. (This process – known as deconvolution – also amplifies the graininess of the image when viewed at high contrast.)

The oblique lighting of this image reveals new topographic details along the day/night boundary, or terminator, near the top. These details include numerous small pits up to about 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in diameter. The large circular feature, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) across, on the smaller of the two lobes, also appears to be a deep depression. Not clear is whether these pits are impact craters or features resulting from other processes, such as "collapse pits" or the ancient venting of volatile materials.

Both lobes also show many intriguing light and dark patterns of unknown origin, which may reveal clues about how this body was assembled during the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. One of the most striking of these is the bright "collar" separating the two lobes.

"This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well," said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "Over the next month there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule."

New Horizons is approximately 4.13 billion miles (6.64 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding away from the Sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 31,500 miles (50,700 kilometers) per hour. At that distance, a radio signal reaches Earth six hours and nine minutes after leaving the spacecraft.

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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory release
New Horizons' Evocative Farewell Glance at Ultima Thule

Images Confirm the Kuiper Belt Object's Highly Unusual, Flatter Shape

An evocative new image sequence from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft offers a departing view of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) nicknamed Ultima Thule – the target of its New Year's 2019 flyby and the most distant world ever explored.

These aren't the last Ultima Thule images New Horizons will send back to Earth – in fact, many more are to come -- but they are the final views New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on Jan. 1. The images were taken nearly 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth," said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery."

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule – with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments – had observers calling it a "snowman." However, more analysis of approach images and these new departure images have changed that view, in part by revealing an outline of the portion of the KBO that was not illuminated by the Sun, but could be "traced out" as it blocked the view to background stars.

Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or "lobes") of Ultima Thule are not spherical. The larger lobe, nicknamed "Ultima," more closely resembles a giant pancake and the smaller lobe, nicknamed "Thule," is shaped like a dented walnut.

"We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view," Stern said. "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun."

The departure images were taken from a different angle than the approach photos and reveal complementary information on Ultima Thule's shape. The central frame of the sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The object's illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level – but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent.

Many background stars are also seen in the individual images; watching which stars "blinked out" as the object passed in front them allowed scientists to outline the shape of both lobes, which could then be compared to a model assembled from analyzing pre-flyby images and ground-based telescope observations. "The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images," says Simon Porter, a New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, who leads the shape-modeling effort.

"While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected," added Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system."


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Ultimate Bulletin Board 5.47a





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