NASA Releases First Scientific Report on Ultima Thule

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The NASA Ultima Thule Report is In!

A map of the New Horizons spacecraft flight plan.

The New Horizons Mission

As Sara reported in January, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed the Kuiper Belt and gave us some exciting data along the way.  Well now the NASA Ultima Thule report is in, and it’s full of preliminary data from the spacecraft.  Specifically, the report detailed the images of Ultima Thule.  Here’s the lowdown on what NASA’s New Horizon’s team found:

The Ultima Thule report shows a world more complex than expected.

This week, NASA’s New Horizons team published the first peer-reviewed scientific findings from the New Horizons spacecraft.  At the beginning of the year, NASA’s deepest probe yet transmitted images of a fascinating asteroid, or “planetesimal,” called MU69 (Uh.. hehehehe… 69… Okay, folks, what good is having a site called Space Porn if you’re not going to take advantage of a setup like that? And yes… I’m still twelve.)

[Clears throat] Okay.  I’m 41 again.  Everyone who isn’t an adolescent trapped in a man’s body calls the object Ultima Thule, and it’s generating a lot of buzz.  The New Horizon’s team published their first results relatively quickly in this week’s issue of Science.  The paper details some surprising results.

Let’s start with the basics, though…

First of all, New Horizons took some pretty awesome pics of the object earlier this year, and we now have specific dimensions of the object!  Ultima Thule features two lobes, each one with different dimensions.  The larger of the two lobes measures roughly 22km x 20km x 7km.  The smaller one measures around 14km x 14km x 10 km.  If you’re paying attention to that three-dimensional math, then you probably figured out that those numbers add up to two conjoined disc-shaped objects.  

Calm down.  This does not… I repeat… THIS DOES NOT mean the Earth is flat.  Yes,  disc-shaped objects exist all over the universe, but the Earth is not one of them.  Just stop, already.  

So, a snowman-shaped pancake, then?

Yep.  It appears so.  Further, the report details that the object isn’ t necessarily unique within its galactic neighborhood.  The NASA Ultima Thule report contains fascinating details and implications that we’ll get to soon.  However, one such conclusion is that Ultima Thule seems to be a pretty normal Kuiper Belt space rock (as if we even know what that means yet…).  The report says MU69’s (Hehehehe… Eh hem… Sorry.) shape is “common” among objects of similar size found in the Kuiper Belt and that the data show no evidence of a violent collision.  This implies that the two lobes fused gently as opposed to violently.

I imagine a Viennese quartet playing a Stauss waltz as the two discs slowly, gently impacted and then fused.  I need to stop watching Kubrick flicks.

Fascinating details and implications, you say?

Yeah, so it turns out some pretty neat craters dot the landscape of Ultima Thule.  Further, they reveal a few interesting implications about the Kuiper Belt itself.

First, Ultima Thule has surprisingly few small craters on its surface, indicating there aren’t many objects smaller than a kilometer in diameter in the Kuiper belt.  This means the craters that cover the surface are relatively huge in comparison.  Because Ultima Thule’s large lobe only measures 20km in diameter, that means that the majority of the craters we see on the surface around are around 5% the size of the object itself.

By way of comparison, the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs is estimated to have been – on the large side – around 150 km in diameter.  Relative to the size of the Earth, that asteroid would have been about 1.1% the size.  Ultima Thule, it appears, has been repeatedly pummeled by impacts five times as powerful if not more.  

Tell me more…

Okay, well, it turns out Ultima Thule is red.  Like, really red.  Redder than Mars.  Pluto? Not not as red.  The Red Rocker himself, Sammy Haggar circa 1977 can’t even lay claim to the redness of Ultima Thule.  In fact, UT is redder than, dare I say it… Reddit

It’s actually the reddest object New Horizon has detected so far.  What does that mean?  Well, we aren’t sure yet! (Isn’t science awesome?)  Our best guess at the moment is that it is red because of modified organic material on the surface.  How freaking cool is that?  There’s probably organic material beyond the outer edges of our solar system!

The Takeaway from the NASA Ultima Thule Report

Alright, so it’s not first contact, but it is further evidence that there may be some form of life beyond our own gravity.  Admittedly, we’ve known there were organic microbes on asteroids for a while now, but seeing possible evidence of them this far out is pretty damn exciting. 

The New Horizons Spacecraft

The New Horizons Spacecraft

We can now be pretty sure that there aren’t’ many objects in the Kuiper Belt smaller than one kilometer in diameter.  This conclusion is based on the size of most of the craters on Ultima Thule’s surface.  We also theorize that the object’s surface is covered in modified organic material, which accounts for the red hue.  Finally, the New Horizons team calculated that Ultima Thule rotates nearly every 16 hours (15.92) on its axis and that its brightest region is the “neck” – the junction of the two lobes.  

As mentioned earlier, the NASA Ultima Thule report conclusions are only the preliminary findings from the New Horizons mission, and we should expect more detailed reports in the coming months and years as new data are gathered and analyzed.  Meanwhile, New Horizons continues its mission to show us the farthest reaches of our solar system!  Huzzah for space exploration!

 

Edited for readability and SEO on 5/20.

Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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