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.
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.
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.
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.