New Horizons’ new and best-yet view of Ultima Thule

The clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made the first flyby of Ultima Thule on early in the New year, it keeps multiplying the wonders and mysteries of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 by beaming new images.

On Jan. 1, the spacecraft captured the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system. 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 picture was stored in the shuttle’s information memory and transmitted to Earth on Jan. 18-19. Scientists then sharpened the image to upgrade fine detail. (This procedure – known as deconvolution – additionally enhances the graininess of the picture when seen at high contrast.)

The angled lighting of this image uncovers new topographic details along the day/night boundary, or terminator, close to the top. These subtleties incorporate various small pits up to about 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in diameter.

The large circular feature, around 4 miles (7 kilometers) over, on the smaller of the two lobes, likewise seem as deep depression. Not clear is whether these pits are impact craters 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.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado said, “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. 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.”