NASA re­leases first im­ages of new world

Space Agency’s New Hori­zons sends back de­tailed pho­tos of Ul­tima Thule

China Daily - - WORLD -

LOS AN­GE­LES — Sci­en­tists from NASA’s New Hori­zons mis­sion on Wed­nes­day re­leased the first de­tailed im­ages of the most dis­tant ob­ject ever ex­plored — the Kuiper Belt ob­ject nick­named Ul­tima Thule, un­veil­ing the very first stages of the so­lar sys­tem’s his­tory.

The new im­ages — taken from as close as about 27,000 km on ap­proach — re­vealed Ul­tima Thule as a “con­tact bi­nary”, con­sist­ing of two con­nected spheres, said NASA.

“That im­age is so 2018 … Meet Ul­tima Thule!” said lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor Alan Stern, do­ing lit­tle to hide his joy as he re­vealed a new sharper im­age of the cos­mic body with a photo res­o­lu­tion of 140 me­ters per pixel.

“That bowl­ing pin is gone — it’s a snow­man if any­thing at all,” Stern said dur­ing a NASA brief­ing.

“What this space­craft and this team ac­com­plished is un­prece­dented.”

End to end, the so­lar body mea­sures about 31 km in length. The team has dubbed the larger sphere “Ul­tima” (19 km across) and the smaller sphere “Thule” (14 km across).

Ul­tima and Thule were once sep­a­rate, free-fly­ing ob­jects. They co­a­lesced long ago, just af­ter the so­lar sys­tem’s birth, ac­cord­ing to the mis­sion team.

This union was not vi­o­lent. The two bod­ies came to­gether at about walk­ing speed, in a meetup more akin to a space­craft dock­ing than to a col­li­sion, said Jeff Moore, leader of New Hori­zons’ ge­ol­ogy and geo­physics team.

The two spheres likely joined as early as 99 per­cent of the way back to the for­ma­tion of the so­lar sys­tem, said the team.

The ap­pear­ance of Ul­tima Thule, un­like any­thing hu­mans have seen be­fore, il­lu­mi­nated the pro­cesses that built the plan­ets four and a half bil­lion years ago, said NASA.

“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,” Moore said.

“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,” he said.

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, said NASA. “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.

Ul­tima Thule, at about 6.4 bil­lion km from the Sun and about 1.6 bil­lion km from Pluto, will be the most dis­tant ob­ject ever di­rectly ex­plored, ac­cord­ing to NASA.

The flyby of Ul­tima Thule was the first-ever ex­plo­ration of small Kuiper Belt Ob­jects, a disc-shaped re­gion beyond Nep­tune that ex­tends from about 30 to 55 as­tro­nom­i­cal units.

“This flyby is a his­toric achieve­ment,” said Stern.

“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-theart space­craft nav­i­ga­tion,” he said.

The New Hori­zons mis­sion, launched in Jan­uary 2006, aims to un­der­stand worlds at the edge of our so­lar sys­tem by mak­ing the first re­con­nais­sance of the dwarf planet Pluto, and by ven­tur­ing deeper into the dis­tant, mys­te­ri­ous Kuiper Belt — a relic of so­lar sys­tem for­ma­tion.

The Ul­tima Thule en­counter, the most-dis­tant plan­e­tary flyby in his­tory, is the cen­ter­piece of New

Hori­zons’ ex­tended mis­sion, which runs through 2021.

Stern said the space­craft has enough power and fuel left to po­ten­tially per­form a flyby of yet an­other dis­tant ob­ject, if NASA ends up ap­prov­ing an­other mis­sion ex­ten­sion.

NASA VIA REUTERS

Ul­tima Thule, the 32-km-long space rock.

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