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.
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.