Monday, 22 July, 2019

It's onward and outward for New Horizons

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years New Horizons unveils a new world. Actually, it's 2 worlds smashed together.
Sandy Nunez | 04 January, 2019, 09:56

The first image of the object was an indistinct blur, but a NASA press conference on Wednesday gave us our best views yet, including a processed image showing Ultima Thule in a glorious reddish color.

"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a Nasa briefing. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".

Perhaps scientists will spot another faint, distant object, and send New Horizons that way.

"Moments like this are what keep me going", Verbiscer says. Data that New Horizons collected as it approached its target suggested that Ultima Thule was bowling-pin-shaped and spinning like a propellor.

Slowing turning, they eventually touched at each other at what mission geology manager Jeff Moore called an "extremely slow speed" - maybe just one to a few miles per hour.

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Scientists can also now infer some geological properties of Ultima Thule. Two of the larger bodies stuck together gently as much smaller ones cleared out. All of the data from the flyby will take 20 entire months to reach the Earth, so we're going to be in for around two years of new discoveries about this odd, distant world. Before Ultima Thule was intercepted by the New Horizons spacecraft, scientists knew nearly nothing about it, but they were eager for a glimpse of what's thought to be an nearly unchanged relic from our solar system's earliest days. The body has a mottled appearance due to some surface irregularities or differences in elevation.

After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name. It'll take 20 months to send all 7 gigabytes of data - at which point New Horizons can start scanning space for its next destination.

Scientists won't know what substances cover its surface until they process more data that was expected to arrive on Earth on Wednesday, but they speculated it could be methane, nitrogen or other organic material. Ultima Thule's story is only beginning, but it's already making history-and back here on Earth, the team can hardly contain their excitement. It's also the first Kuiper Belt object of its kind to ever be encountered by a spacecraft.

We now know the basics of this unusual object, the most distant solar system body ever explored by a spacecraft. Scientists think the object could contain the chemical signatures of the early solar system.

He added that if there was any shock from the Ultima Thule fly-by, it was how fortunate the scientists were for finding it in the Kuiper Belt. We'll forgive them for not coming up with anything more creative since their minds are likely blown by the sight of planetary formation caught in the act, so to speak. "It's going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".