“Headless Snowman” Ultima Thule Shines In 3D

The New Horizons science team created the first stereo image pair of Ultima Thule. To see it in 3D, don a pair of red-blue stereo glasses. The images were taken on January 1 from respective ranges of 38,000 miles (61,000 km) and 17,000 miles (28,000 km). NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

I thought you’d appreciate a brief update from today’s New Horizons’ press conference about the Ultima Thule flyby. While there were no new images received and released, the mission team did combine two photos taken at slightly different times to create a stereo or 3D image of the object. If you have a pair of those cardboard, red-blue glasses, slip them over your nose and have a look at the photo above.

Cross your eyes and merger these two images of Ultima Thule into one 3D view at the center of your field of vision. If this version doesn’t work for you, try the one below with the images swapped as suggested and created by reader Bruce Ojard. NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Dr. Brian May
Version 2 with images swapped left and right. What do you think? Which looks more 3D? NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Dr. Brian May

Because the lighting angle washes out any shadow detail, you can only see a modest amount of relief, but I’ll take it. Most impressive is what appear to be one large depression or two side-by-side ones on the left side of the smaller object, named Thule. If you don’t have a pair of 3D glasses but can cross your eyes, the second photo showing two slightly different views of the asteroid. Sitting about two feet from your computer screen, relax and cross your eyes and in the middle of your vision field Ultima Thule will hover in three dimensions.

Mission scientists shared that both Thule (the little knob) and Ultima have the same color and likely formed from the same materials. The bright areas seem to be lower elevations or depressions filled with material that has rolled downhill. You can see with your own eyes that there are at least a half dozen of these areas, the most prominent being where the two bodies connect.

Diagram of Ultima Thule showing how slopes can cause material to roll downhill and fill “valleys” on the asteroid. NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / James Tuttle Keane

Now about 3 million miles beyond the object, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has finished its reconnaissance and gathered all the data it can. For the next 20 months, it will relay it all back to Earth even as the probe continues to monitor the “radiation environment” of the Kuiper Belt. That monitoring is key to understanding how ultraviolet radiation from the sun and cosmic rays have altered and colored the surface of Ultima Thule. The team hopes to discover tiny moons orbiting around the object which would help explain two big questions: Ultima Thule’s mass and how the two icy spheres it made of managed to slow down enough so they could stick together.

This wider view deliberately overexposes Ultima Thule (at left) in order to search for faint moons. None were found extremely close or extremely far from the object, but data from the “middle zone” is still en route. The points of light are background stars. NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

To get two spinning, orbiting objects close together to coalesce, something has to slow them down. Nearby moons would “put the brakes” on the system, allowing it bleed off energy, close in and fuse.

Today’s was the last press conference for a week or more because starting tomorrow, there will be a pause in the data streaming from the spacecraft as the probe passes directly behind the sun from our point of view. The sun’s hot outer atmosphere called the corona would otherwise interfere with the radio signal beamed from New Horizons to mission control. Everything will be in pause mode for 5 days after which time, transmission of all the juicy details and images will resume.

8 Responses

  1. Troy

    If you think about the amount of energy that something as massive as “Thule” would have, even a small “kiss” like a parking lot accident velocity would be enough to melt some of the water ice in the contact zone, which would immediately refreeze.

    1. astrobob

      I think you have a great hypothesis there! Given the bitter cold temperatures and especially if amorphous ice were involved. One wonders though how much material would melt vs. vaporize in the vacuum of space.

  2. Bruce Ojard

    I’m pretty sure your two images for the cross-your-eyes thing are reversed–I see the 3D as being “inside-out”–I photoshopped the images to be the other way and the 3D is then correct.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks, Bruce. This was the one shared by NASA but they may have got the order incorrect. Thanks for creating a swapped version, which I just posted on the blog.

    2. This is really interesting for me. I see the original steteo-pair “correctly”; Bruce’s version looks inside out and behind the black background to me.

      I would be very interested to see if others have opposing views of the depth perception here.

      1. astrobob

        That makes me glad I put both versions up! It must be in the way some of us cross our eyes. There must be more than one way to do it because I see Bruce’s version better. Thanks for writing.

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