Science & Technology

New Horizons team gets first fuzzy glimpse of elongated icy world on solar system’s edge

LAUREL, Md. — The science team for NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft launched its first multi-pixel view of an icy world greater than 4 billion miles from Earth, and the evaluation suggests it’s an elongated area cigar.

“We all know it’s not spherical, we will say that with confidence,” John Spencer of the Southwest Analysis Institute, one of the mission’s venture scientists, stated right now throughout a information briefing scheduled simply hours earlier than the probe was resulting from fly simply 2,200 miles previous the mysterious object.

Based mostly on observations made on Earth throughout stellar occultations, Spencer and different astronomers suspected that the item — identified by its formal designation, 2014 MU69, or by its nickname, Ultima Thule — may be made of smooshed-together chunks of ice and rock.

Spencer stated the fuzzy picture was nonetheless according to that speculation, however scientists will know definitively as soon as better-quality footage are despatched again from the shut encounter, which is ready to happen at 12:33 a.m. ET on New Yr’s Day (9:33 p.m. PT tonight).

These footage gained’t be launched till later within the week, however even the fuzzy pre-flyby picture energized the New Horizons team, stated SwRI’s Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission.

“I’ve by no means seen so many individuals enthusiastic about two pixels,” Stern quipped.

The picture was captured at 11:56 a.m. ET on Sunday, when the probe was nonetheless 1.2 million miles away from Ultima Thule (“Ul-ti-ma Too-lee”), which is inside an icy area of the solar system often known as the Kuiper Belt.

Three and a half years in the past, the piano-sized New Horizons probe flew previous Pluto, which is on the close to edge of the Kuiper Belt, at a distance of greater than 3 billion miles. After the Pluto reconnaissance mission was concluded, NASA licensed New Horizons to take on an prolonged mission to review Ultima Thule, which was recognized utilizing Hubble Area Telescope imagery through the probe’s cruise towards Pluto.

The Ultima Thule part of the mission represents historical past’s farthest-out encounter with a celestial physique, and the first up-close examine of a sort of mini-world often known as a “chilly classical” Kuiper Belt object. Chilly classicals are thought to rank among the many solar system’s most primitive objects, and New Horizons’ encounter may shed extra gentle on the method that led to planetary formation.

“The Kuiper Belt is a scientific wonderland,” Stern stated.

A number of gigabytes’ value of imagery and information from the flyby will likely be saved in New Horizons’ solid-state reminiscence banks, and transmitted again to Earth over the course of 20 months.

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