New Horizons' newest and best-yet view of Ultima Thule

January 25, 2019, Johns Hopkins University
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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 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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8 comments

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carbon_unit
5 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2019
Nice image gallery here: http://pluto.jhua...ndex.php
Lot of good stuff, delivered at 2000 bits/second!
granville583762
4.3 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2019
Is it not possible to magnify a small area of Ultima Thule onto this CCD
Then send millions of this mosaic images back to earth
where they are built into a high resolution image
New Horizons spacecraft is a rock steady platform
a tiny distortion is far outweighed by the high resolution detailed image obtained
as it avoids carrying special cameras, computers can work wonders
In fact only a small area needs mapping in detail, the computers can visualise the rest
Thorium Boy
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 28, 2019
Quite remarkable that they can image the thing well, the lighting out there is a minor fraction of what we have on Earth.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2019
You just have to wait long enough to capture enough photons in the CCD.
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (4) Jan 28, 2019
Which is tricky when one is flying by at 51,500 km/h (32,000 mph; 14.3 km/s).

@gv The resolution is what it is. I'm sure those working with NH have done the best they can with the hardware and software. With a download speed of only 2kbps, the processors on NH have plenty of time to compress the heck out of the data and perhaps use preloaded algorithms pick out things of 'interest'. If they are following the pattern of the Pluto encounter, at this point in time they aren't trying for maximum resolution. They are trying to get an overview of the captured images at lower resolution to guard against Something Bad happening to the probe before it completes the download at full resolution.
granville583762
5 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2019
There does not seem to been any new images from new horizons
is this because it takes months to transmit images
or no new images have been sighted or both
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2019
Well, to download a million bytes at 2000 bits/second would take somewhat over an hour, so I imagine they can get one or more images a day if they aren't too big. It will take months to get them all. Maybe the raw images simply aren't "interesting" enough to the general public to justify putting them in a gallery. There's probably a site where you can actually see every image right after it arrives, but I don't know what it is.
hat1208
not rated yet Jan 31, 2019
@carbon_unit

granville58762 aka Benni is just bitching to bitch it doesn't really want anything but attention JSYK

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