The space snowman that was the focus of a close encounter with NASA’s New Horizons probe last year is helping scientists answer a cosmic question: How did the building blocks of the solar system get their start?
“This is a game-changer,” said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator for the New Horizons mission.
The snowman-shaped object that NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past nearly a year ago on the solar system’s icy fringe now has a Native American name: Arrokoth, a word that means “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.
Arrokoth replaces earlier labels for the Kuiper Belt object, including the numerical designation 2014 MU69 and the nickname Ultima Thule, which turned out to be rather controversial.
Members of the New Horizons science team announced today that their proposed name has won approval by the International Astronomical Union and its Minor Planet Center.
Close study of the two-lobed object — which orbits 4 billion miles from the sun within a sparse belt of icy material known as the Kuiper Belt — could shed light on how the solar system was formed, said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
“We’re looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past,” Stern said in a news release. “There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation.”
Most of the findings published today came out informally in the aftermath of New Horizons’ flyby on New Year’s Day, but the research paper summarizes everything that’s been learned to date — and points to mysteries yet to be solved.
The scientists behind NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have released the sharpest possible view of the mission’s latest target, a smooshed-in cosmic snowman known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule.
New Horizons captured gigabytes’ worth of imagery and data as it flew past the icy object, more than 4 billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of primordial material on the edge of our solar system. It’s taken weeks to send back detailed data for processing, but now the team says they’ve gotten the best close-up view of Ultima that they’ll ever get.
The best pictures were taken from a distance of 4,109 miles, just six and a half minutes before the time of closest approach at 12:33 a.m. ET Jan. 1 (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31). By processing multiple images, the team was able to sharpen image resolution to about 110 feet per pixel.
Principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said the imaging campaign hit the “bull’s-eye.”
NASA’s New Horizons probe has already shown that its icy target, more than 4 billion miles away on the solar system’s edge, looks like a cosmic snowman — but a higher-resolution version of the picture reveals the snowman to have an eerie pair of “eyes” set in what looks to be a deep depression.
The 19-mile-long object — which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by its informal nickname, Ultima Thule — consists of what looks like two balls of ice and rock stuck together. Scientists suspect that there are many similar objects, known as contact binaries, in the broad ring of icy material known as the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons zoomed past 2014 MU69 back on New Year’s Day, snapping hundreds of pictures as it passed. Since then, the piano-sized probe has been transmitting data at a slow, deliberate speed of roughly 1,000 bits per second.
The first pictures were fuzzy, but now New Horizons is raising the resolution. The picture released today is based on imagery that was acquired by the Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera, part of the probe’s Ralph instrument suite, from a distance of 4,200 miles.
LAUREL, Md. — The science team behind NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft today released the first 3-D image of an icy object more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and the variations in the picture hint at ridges, craters and knobby features that will be more fully charted as the resolution improves.
Two pictures, separated by just a moment in time, were fused together to produce a somewhat fuzzy but depth-enabled glimpse at the object — which has the official designation of 2014 MU69 but has been nicknamed Ultima Thule by the New Horizon team.
“Features appear to be rotating into view as the object twists underneath us,” Paul Schenk, a New Horizons co-investigator from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, said during today’s briefing here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “These have a knobby appearance, and could be the inside of a large impact crater that’s on the far side.”
The stereo view also appears to highlight ridge structures on the 19-mile-long object, which has been compared in appearance to a snowman or the BB-8 droid from “Star Wars.” Some of the ridges could represent elevation variations amounting to several hundred feet, he said.
Schenk said a side-by-side version of the 3-D images was created by Brian May, an astrophysicist specializing in scientific stereoscopy who also happens to be the lead guitarist for the classic rock group Queen.
“It’s a snowman,” mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It even has a BB-8ish orangish-reddish color theme going on.
Today’s imagery, derived from data sent back to Earth on the previous day, literally casts a whole new light on the 19-mile-long object — which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by the nickname given by the New Horizons team, Ultima Thule (“Ul-ti-ma Too-lay”).
The views were captured by the piano-sized probe’s high-resolution camera from a distance of roughly 18,000 miles, a half-hour before the time of close approach on New Year’s Day. Two black-and-white pictures were released, with a resolution as fine as 140 meters (460 feet) per pixel.
LAUREL, Md. — NASA’s New Horizons science team today received confirmation that its spacecraft survived a New Year’s encounter with an icy world 4 billion miles away known as Ultima Thule — and it’s carrying a priceless load of data.
“We have a healthy spacecraft,” mission operations manager Alice Bowman announced here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “We’ve just accomplished the most distant flyby. We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmissions … science to help us understand the origins of our solar system.”
The report was greeted with cheers and hugs at APL’s mission control center.
“This spacecraft is rock-solid!” the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, told GeekWire just after New Horizons’ status report.
LAUREL, Md. — Hundreds of well-wishers took part in a different kind of New Year’s countdown, 33 minutes past midnight, to celebrate the moment when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past an icy object known as Ultima Thule, more than 4 billion miles away.
The revelers here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory didn’t yet know for sure whether the piano-sized probe actually survived the encounter. Because of the complicated schedule for New Horizons’ observations, plus the 6-hour-plus time it takes for radio signals to travel from Ultima Thule to NASA’s Deep Space Network, definitive word of success (or failure) won’t come until hours later on New Year’s Day.
Despite the uncertainty, tonight’s gathering had many of the trappings of a New Year’s Eve party, including sparkling wine and party hats. Mission team members and New Horizons’ fans, plus family members, noshed on hors d’oeuvres and watched presentations and performances (including a sing-along in New Horizons’ honor) during the buildup to 12:33 a.m. ET (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31).
LAUREL, Md. — After you’ve participated in NASA’s New Horizons mission to the edge of the solar system, and written a rock anthem for the mission as well, what is there left to do? For Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen who went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics, maybe it’s taking a trip to space.
“I’m probably too old to do that,” the 71-year-old British rocker said at first. “A little too old in the tooth to do that.”
Then, after a moment of reflection, he changed his tune.
“I probably still would like to, yeah,” he said. “I don’t really fancy the idea of going up and having a few seconds and then coming back down again. That doesn’t appeal to me. What appeals to me more is, for instance, the ISS [International Space Station], where you can go up there and you sit there and contemplate the world which you were born on, and watch it turn underneath you.”