NASA’s New Horizons reveals geological ‘Frankenstein’ that is formed Ultima Thule

A new map is produced by the New Horizons team will appear and shows the many different rocks that converged to the form of the object known as Ultima Thule. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory)

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Less than three months after the New Horizons spacecraft zooms in a far-away, cold space rock, scientists begin to piece together the story of how that object, known as Ultima Thule, came to be.

In a series of scientific presentations held today (March 18) at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, mission scientists shared new data on the space rock’s surface topography and composition, which helps them to refine scenarios about how the object formed.

“Any perception that we planned worked out as planned,” Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said during the team’s first presentation. “We had a 100 percent successful flyby.”

Related: New Horizons’ Ultima Thule Flyby in Photos

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  • New Horizons spacecraft zooms in a far-away, cold space rock

The richness of the data from the spacecraft was able to collect has offered mysteries and hypotheses both about the distant Kuiper Belt object, that scientists had not discovered as a New Horizon was launched. In particular, the team is eager to piece together the way in which the object, which is formally known as the 2014 MU69, is formed.

Soon after the flyby, the team has confirmed that MU69 is, in fact, two objects are stuck together in what scientists call a contact binary. Continuous analysis of high-resolution black-and-white New Horizons in the photos suggests that the two halves of the object are formed separately and that the larger lobe, nicknamed Ultima, seems to be a consequence of the much smaller objects clumping together, such as Dippin’ Dots.

“In a certain sense, Ultima has a fairly simplified geology, a bit like Frankenstein here,” Jeff Moore, a New Horizon, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said during a presentation. “Thule has a lot more stuff is going on here.” In particular, this smaller lobe sports the biggest feature of the object, a depression, the team has the nickname of Maryland. (New Horizons is managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in that state.)

But if the team turns to the color of the images, it is difficult to see evidence of this overall structure. MU69 is overwhelming red surface shows some variations in the color that matches the surface properties, but not the presumed small geological subunits.

“You definitely see a correlation with the geological features, but there is one thing that you don’t see, it is a logical correlations with these lumps, that might be the earlier stages of the growth,” Grundy, an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, said during his presentation. “They don’t look clearly different from each other.”

The new findings also touch on how the two pieces of MU69 converged. If the team has gotten a look at the connection of the object, they found no evidence that a violent collision deformed the rock. Instead, the scientists believe that the two halves of the object is formed separately, hung around together long enough to synchronize their longest and shortest dimensions — if two neighbouring pancakes — then, very slowly, became, with a speed of about 9.8 feet (3 meters) per second.

“You can do this yourself, you can walk into a wall,” William McKinnon, New Horizons partner and a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, said during his presentation. “It is a very gentle situation.”

Although the spacecraft stay in MU69 was incredibly short, mission scientists received new data from the New Horizons for more than a year. That is possible thanks to the amount of the observations and the slow data-relay rate possible for the probe at such a large distance from the Earth. The combination means scientists grappling with puzzles about the object for a while to come.

“Ultima Thule is further remarkable,” Stern said. “It has provided us with a wide range of mysteries, and honestly, I think that on a per gram basis, it can even outshine Pluto itself.

  • New Horizons’ Historic Flyby of Ultima Thule: Full Coverage
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