Category Archives: Pluto and beyond

New Horizons: High-res images of Ultima Thule + New documentary “Summiting the Solar System”

On Friday, the New Horizons mission released the highest resolution images yet of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, which the probe flew by on January 1st: Spot On! New Horizons Spacecraft Returns Its Sharpest Views of Ultima Thule

The mission team called it a “stretch goal” – just before closest approach, precisely point the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to snap the sharpest possible pics of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, its New Year’s flyby target and the farthest object ever explored.

Now that New Horizons has sent those stored flyby images back to Earth, the team can enthusiastically confirm that its ambitious goal was met.

These new images of Ultima Thule – obtained by the telephoto Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) just 6½ minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to the object (officially named 2014 MU69) at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1 – offer a resolution of about 110 feet (33 meters) per pixel. Their combination of high spatial resolution and a favorable viewing angle gives the team an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the surface, as well as the origin and evolution, of Ultima Thule – thought to be the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft.

“Bullseye!” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “Getting these images required us to know precisely where both tiny Ultima and New Horizons were — moment by moment – as they passed one another at over 32,000 miles per hour in the dim light of the Kuiper Belt, a billion miles beyond Pluto. This was a much tougher observation than anything we had attempted in our 2015 Pluto flyby.

Highest Resolution Image 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 — have a resolution of about 110 feet (33 meters) per pixel. Their combination of higher spatial resolution and a favorable viewing geometry offer an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the surface of Ultima Thule, believed to be the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft. Full size image and caption

And here is a clip of the fly-by:

New Horizons scientists created this movie from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly before the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019. The central frame of this sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 5:26:54 UT (12:26 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 4,117 miles (6,640 kilometers) from Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. Ultima Thule nearly completely fills the LORRI image and is perfectly captured in the frames, an astounding technical feat given the uncertain location of Ultima Thule and the New Horizons spacecraft flying past it at over 32,000 miles per hour.

(Note: To loop the video, right button click on it and select “Loop” from the list of options shown.)


Here are the two parts of the documentary, New Horizons – Summiting the Solar System, about the New Horizons fly-by of Ultima Thule:

Summiting the Solar System is a story of exploration at its most ambitious and extreme. On January 1, 2019, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies by a small Kuiper Belt Object known scientifically as 2014 MU69, but nicknamed “Ultima Thule.” Ultima is four billion miles from Earth, and will be the most ancient and most distant world ever explored close up. It is expected to offer discoveries about the origin and evolution of our solar system. Chosen by the team and the public, the nickname honors the mythical land beyond the edges of the known world. But “Summiting” is much more than the story of a sophisticated, plutonium-fueled robotic spacecraft exploring far from the Sun. The New Horizons mission is powered as much by the passions of a small team of humans—men and women, scientists and engineers—for whom pushing the frontiers of the known, climbing the very peaks of the possible, has been the dream of many decades.

“Summiting” goes behind the scenes of the most ambitious occultation campaigns ever mounted, as scientists deployed telescopes to Senegal and Colombia in 2018, and Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand in 2017, to glimpse Ultima as it passed in front of a star, and gathered data on the object’s size and orbit that has been essential to planning the flyby. Mission scientists recall the astonishing scientific success of flying through the Pluto system in 2015, and use comparative planetology to show how Earth and Pluto are both amazingly different and—with glaciers, tall mountains, volcanoes and blue skies—awesomely similar. Appealing to space junkies and adrenaline junkies alike, “Summiting” brings viewers along for the ride of a lifetime as New Horizons pushes past Pluto and braves an even more hazardous unknown.


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Space science roundup – Feb.9.2019

A sampling of items regarding planetary science, astronomy, and solar science:

** A solar cycle update from Bob Zimmerman:  Sunspot update January 2019: The early solar minimum | Behind The Black

January saw a slight uptick in sunspot activity, but the overall activity remains comparable to mid-2008, when the last prolonged solar minimum began. If you go to my October 2018 update, you can see the graph when it included data going back to 2000 and see the entire last minimum.

That last minimum started in the last half of 2007, and lasted until mid-2009, a full two years. If you look at the red line prediction of the solar science community, it appears that they are expecting this coming minimum to last far longer, almost forever. I expect this is not really true, but that they have simply not agreed on a prediction for the next cycle. Some in that solar science community have hypothesized that we are about to enter a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades and thus no solar maximum. Others do not agree.

** Mark Showalter,  New Horizons Hazard team lead and SETI Institute Senior Scientist, discusses “the spacecraft’s flyby of Ultima Thule, what it’s like working on the Hazards team, and even the naming of some of Pluto’s surface features” with SETI Institute chief Bill Diamond:

*** Ultima Thule has flat lobes according to further analysis of the image data from the fly-by of the Kuiper Belt object: New Horizons’ Evocative Farewell Glance at Ultima Thule: Images Confirm the Kuiper Belt Object’s Highly Unusual, Flatter Shape – New Horizons

This animation depicts a shape model of Ultima Thule created by the New Horizons science team based on its analysis of all the pre-flyby images sent to Earth so far. The first half of the movie mimics the view from the New Horizons spacecraft as it approached Ultima Thule and has the “snowman” shape that was so frequently mentioned in the days surrounding the New Year’s 2019 flyby.

The movie then rotates to a side-view that illustrates what New Horizons might have seen had its cameras been pointing toward Ultima Thule only a few minutes after closest approach. While that wasn’t the case, mission scientists have been able to piece together a model of this side-view, which has been at least partially confirmed by a set of crescent images of Ultima Thule (link). There is still considerable uncertainty in the sizes of “Ultima” (the larger section, or lobe) and “Thule” (the smaller) in the vertical dimension, but it’s now clear that Ultima looks more like a pancake than a sphere, and that Thule is also very non-spherical.

** Mars:

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover has already descended from Vera Rubin Ridge, a region of Mount Sharp that it has been exploring for more than a year. But before it left, the rover took a 360-degree panorama of the area depicting its last drill hole on the ridge (at a location called “Rock Hall”), a new region it will spent the next year exploring (the clay unit) and its last view of Gale Crater’s floor until it starts ascending in elevation again.

At high resolution there does not appear to be much difference between the darker and lighter areas. The lighter areas in general seem less rough and at a slightly lower elevation, but both areas are dominated by ridges and dunes trending southwest-to-northeast.

Why is this slightly higher region darker? Let’s assume that this darker material was a lava flow overlaying the surface. Over eons wind erosion, trending southwest-to-northwest, roughly eroded both it and the lower layers around it, leaving behind this rough corroded terrain. The different make-up of the darker material allows it to erode in a rougher manner.

While possibly correct, I would not bet much money on this guess. It is not clear it is lava. It is not clear that it is a flow. It does not explain why there are two areas of different darkness. And it certainly not clear what the make-up of any of this stuff is.

This is simply another cool mystery on the Martian surface.

Martian southern highlands region showing contrast between lighter and darker tinted areas.

** Moon:

Chang’e-4 lander as seen from the Yutu-2 rover.

** Uranus and Neptune are more interesting than we thought, new images show | Berkeley News

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the latest weather pictures of our solar system’s frigid outer planets, and UC Berkeley astronomers have jumped in to interpret them.

Giant polar cap dominates Uranus; dark tempest is raging on Neptune.

The new images, taken as part of a yearly monitoring program, show that a dark storm has appeared in Neptune’s northern hemisphere, the fourth seen on the planet since 1993, all of which appear and fade within a few years. UC Berkeley undergraduate student Andrew Hsu, who led a study of the latest images with associate research astronomer Michael Wong, estimates that the dark spots appear every four to six years at different latitudes and disappear after about two years.

It’s unclear how the storms form, Hsu said, but like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the dark vortices swirl in an anti-cyclonic direction and seem to dredge up material from deeper levels in the ice giant’s atmosphere. The latest storm was captured by Hubble in September 2018 and is roughly 6,800 miles across.

The new snapshot of Uranus gives a fresh look at a long-lived storm circling around the north-pole region of Uranus, a planet that is usually thought of as featureless and boring.

More at Hubble Reveals Dynamic Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune – HubbleSite

** Asteroids – The DART mission will smack an asteroid with a spacecraft to test deflection capabilities:  The DART Mission: Learning How to Swat Dangerous Asteroids | The Planetary Society

Why did the dinosaurs die? They didn’t have a space program! The upcoming DART mission will test our best thinking about how we may someday deflect a Near Earth Object that is speeding toward fiery Armageddon on Earth. Nancy Chabot of the JHU Applied Physics Lab is the mission’s Coordination Lead.

** Science news is included in the latest space news report: SpaceX Engine Tests, ISRO Spaceflight, Lunar Craters and SpaceIL


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New Horizons: Sharpest image yet of Ultima Thule

The latest images of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule from New Horizons at JHU/APL:

New Horizons’ Newest and Best-Yet View of Ultima Thule

The wonders – and mysteries – of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 continue to multiply as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beams home new images of its New Year’s Day 2019 flyby target.

Ultima Thule. Release Date: January 24, 2019. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This image, taken during the historic Jan. 1 flyby of what’s informally known as Ultima Thule, is the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system – and the first small “KBO” ever explored by a spacecraft.

Obtained with the wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) component of New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, this image was taken when the KBO was 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) from the spacecraft, at 05:26 UT (12:26 a.m. EST) on Jan. 1 – just seven minutes before closest approach. With an original resolution of 440 feet (135 meters) per pixel, the image was stored in the spacecraft’s data memory and transmitted to Earth on Jan. 18-19. Scientists then sharpened the image to enhance fine detail. (This process – known as deconvolution – also amplifies the graininess of the image when viewed at high contrast.)

The oblique lighting of this image reveals new topographic details along the day/night boundary, or terminator, near the top. These details include numerous small pits up to about 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in diameter. The large circular feature, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) across, on the smaller of the two lobes, also appears to be a deep depression. Not clear is whether these pits are impact craters or features resulting from other processes, such as “collapse pits” or the ancient venting of volatile materials.

Both lobes also show many intriguing light and dark patterns of unknown origin, which may reveal clues about how this body was assembled during the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. One of the most striking of these is the bright “collar” separating the two lobes.

“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Over the next month there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”

New Horizons is approximately 4.13 billion miles (6.64 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding away from the Sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 31,500 miles (50,700 kilometers) per hour. At that distance, a radio signal reaches Earth six hours and nine minutes after leaving the spacecraft.


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Videos: Chang’e-4 on the Moon + OSIRIS REx orbits Bennu + New Horizons passes Ultima Thule

The new year is off to a very impressive start in space science:

** China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft landed on the far side of the moon. (See posting here.)

** OSIRIS REx successfully orbited Bennu, the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft. (See posting here) – NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Enters Close Orbit Around Bennu, Breaking Record – OSIRIS-REx Mission

Now, the spacecraft will circle Bennu about a mile (1.75 kilometers) from its center, closer than any other spacecraft has come to its celestial object of study. (Previously the closest orbit of a planetary body was in May 2016, when the Rosetta spacecraft orbited about four miles (seven kilometers) from the center of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.) The comfortable distance is necessary to keep the spacecraft locked to Bennu, which has a gravity force only 5-millionths as strong as Earth’s. The spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February at a leisurely 62 hours per orbit.

Now that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is closer to Bennu, physical details about the asteroid will leap into sharper focus, and the spacecraft’s tour of this rubble pile of primordial debris will become increasingly detailed and focused.

In 2020, OSIRIS-REx will come down onto the surface of Bennu and grab a sample of regolith. The sample will be returned to Earth in 2023.

** New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever targeted by a space mission. (See posting here.) New Ultima Thule Discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons – New Horizons. Here is a press briefing held on Thursday:


Scott Manley reviews the three heroic missions:


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

New Horizons images begin to unveil Ultima Thule

Higher resolution images of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule have now been transmitted from the New Horizons probe (see earlier postings here and here). On Wednesday the New Horizons project released the following:

NASA’s New Horizons Mission Reveals Entirely New Kind of World
Images of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule unveil
the very first stages of solar system’s history

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 459 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Scientists from NASA’s New Horizons mission released the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored — the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule. Its remarkable appearance, unlike anything we’ve seen before, illuminates the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago.

“This flyby is a historic achievement,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space. New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation.”

The new images — taken from as close as 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) on approach — revealed Ultima Thule as a “contact binary,” consisting of two connected spheres. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. The team has dubbed the larger sphere “Ultima” (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere “Thule” (9 miles/14 kilometers across).

The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface. At left is an enhanced color image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. The center image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The team says that the two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender.

“New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time,” said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead. “Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy.”

Data from the New Year’s Day flyby will continue to arrive over the next weeks and months, with much higher resolution images yet to come.

“In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we’ll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule — and the solar system,” said Helene Winters, New Horizons Project Manager.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtags #UltimaThule, #UltimaFlyby and #askNewHorizons to join the conversation. Live updates and links to mission information are also available on and


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto