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New Horizons does a far-out parallax experiment

Brian May with OWL viewer
Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May, a member of the New Horizons science team, uses his patented OWL viewer to check out the stereo images of Proxima Centauri that he created by combining pictures from Earth-based telescopes and the New Horizons spacecraft. (Photo courtesy of Brian May, via New Horizons / JHUAPL / SwRI / NASA)

NASA’s New Horizons probe has measured the distance to nearby stars using a technique that’s as old as the ancient mariners, but from a vantage point those mariners could only dream of.

The experiment, conducted on April 22-23 as the spacecraft zoomed 4.3 billion miles out from Earth, produced the farthest-out parallax observations ever made.

“It’s fair to say that New Horizons is looking at an alien sky, unlike what we see from Earth,” principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said today in a news release. “And that has allowed us to do something that had never been accomplished before — to see the nearest stars visibly displaced on the sky from the positions we see them on Earth.”

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Cosmic snowman revealed, now in 3-D

Ultima Thule in 3-D
This first 3-D view of the icy Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule is best seen using red-blue glasses. Click on the image for a larger view. (NASA / JHU / SwRI via YouTube)

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.

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