Ultima Thule is a Trans-Neptunian object located in the Kuiper Belt nearly four billion miles away from the Sun. It was discovered on June 26, 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope as part of a search for target objects for the New Horizons mission. New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006, and after over a decade traversing our Solar System, arrived in the vicinity of Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019. It is the farthest and quite possibly oldest celestial object ever visited by a man-made spacecraft.

Upon its arrival, New Horizons observed Ultima’s propeller-like rotation while capturing several images, revealing the object as a contact binary, two massive bodies (spheres) connected to each other. It measures 19 miles (31km) in diameter. The two objects likely crashed into each other, merging during the early formation of the Solar System. The name ‘Ultima Thule,’ the most popular chosen during a public competition in 2018, comes from the Latin phrase meaning the most distant place beyond the borders of the known world. Researchers desribe the surface as moderately implying a possibly pristine surface, a fascinating characteristic for such an ancient object. The science that can be had…

First Images of Ultima Thule

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

 

 

Communicating with new Horizons isn’t easy, as it takes approx. four hours and 25 minutes for radio signals sent from NH to reach planet Earth, and vice versa. New Horizons will send troves of data over the years few years, full of high res photos, ultra violet images, and planetary measurements of the atmosphere and temperature. Over the course of the next 20 months, data collected from the flyby will be downlinked back to Earth until around September 2020. The significance of New Horizons’ exploration of Ultima Thule marks a new era of space exploration, as humanity begins to unravel the mysteries of the mysterious Kuiper Belt, a region inhabited by ancient celestial objects that may have once composed planets and moons. Scientists believe that the answers to some of our civilization’s most important questions, including the very formation of the planets within out solar system, might be answered in this region of space.