NASA spacecraft beams back sharpest images of Ultima Thule

The most detailed images of Ultima Thule obtained just minutes before the spacecraft's closest approach at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1

The most detailed images of Ultima Thule obtained just minutes before the spacecraft's closest approach at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1

This image of Ultima Thule was captured just minutes before the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to the KBO during the January 1 flyby.

New Horizons had to fly three times closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto to obtain these images.

The newest photos represent fulfillment of what mission scientists called their "stretch goal", recording images just before the closest approach, pointing the spacecraft's cameras so as to capture the sharpest possible pictures.

New Horizons just snapped more high-resolution images of Ultima Thule and they show the space object's cool surface features.

Principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said the imaging campaign hit the "bull's-eye". However, Stern added that the team, and the science "nailed it, and the result is a field day for our science team!" The flyby of the Kuiper Belt object required the highest navigation precision ever achieved by a spacecraft. "Some of the details we now see on Ultima Thule's surface are unlike any object ever explored before", according to the SwRI statement. Capturing the newly released images was a "stretch goal" that demanded a precise square-up of Ultima in the narrow field of view of New Horizons' telescopic camera.

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Taken during a recent flyby of the icy object in the Kuiper Belt region, the latest images of Ultima Thule reveal even more details, such as the bright ring-like features and dark pits, whose origins remain unknown. Another mysterious trait is the presence of a high number of dark pits near the terminator line - the zone where the lit and unlit parts of a celestial body meet.

John Spencer, a deputy project scientist for New Horizons told Space.com: "Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits or something entirely different is being debated by our science team".

NASA scientists already knew some details about Ultima Thule before now, such as its distinct pancake shape. The Ultima Thule flyby is the centerpiece of an extended mission that runs through 2021.

All raw images returned by LORRI, including the ones used to create the composite, are posted to the instrument's website every Friday for public viewing. Mission operations manager Alice Bowman of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory reports that the spacecraft is continuing to operate flawlessly. Follow New Horizons on its trek through the Kuiper Belt.

At that distance, radio signals traveling at light speed reach the large antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network six hours and nine minutes after New Horizons sends them, according to NASA.

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