Ultima Thule Flyby – Organic Molecules Detected a Billion Miles Past Pluto

Ultima Thule Flyby – Organic Molecules Detected a Billion Miles Past Pluto
February 24, 2019 paperlesslion

NASA reported the New Horizons spacecraft detected methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule’s surface. The space craft is still in the process of downloading information gleaned from its New Years Day fly-by of 2014 MU69, a frozen planetary building block located in the Kuiper Belt, one billion miles past Pluto and about four billion miles from Earth.

NASA announced the news in a press briefing May 16, 2019. We’ve posted a new mission summary video and detailed information below. Click here for the latest news.

On May 16, 2019, NASA’s New Horizons mission team published the first profile of the farthest world ever explored, a planetary building block and Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69.

Analyzing just the first sets of data gathered during the New Horizons spacecraft’s New Year’s 2019 flyby of MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule) the mission team quickly discovered an object far more complex than expected. The team publishes the first peer-reviewed scientific results and interpretations – just four months after the flyby – in the May 17 issue of the journal Science.

In addition to being the farthest exploration of an object in history – four billion miles from Earth – the flyby of Ultima Thule was also the first investigation by any space mission of a well-preserved planetesimal, an ancient relic from the era of planet formation.

The initial data summarized in Science reveal much about the object’s development, geology and composition. It’s a contact binary, with two distinctly differently shaped lobes. At about 22 miles (36 kilometers) long, Ultima Thule consists of a large, strangely flat lobe (nicknamed “Ultima”) connected to a smaller, somewhat rounder lobe (nicknamed “Thule”), at a juncture nicknamed “the neck.” How the two lobes got their unusual shape is an unanticipated mystery that likely relates to how they formed billions of years ago.

The lobes likely once orbited each other, like many so-called binary worlds in the Kuiper Belt, until some process brought them together in what scientists have shown to be a “gentle” merger. For that to happen, much of the binary’s orbital momentum must have dissipated for the objects to come together, but scientists don’t yet know whether that was due to aerodynamic forces from gas in the ancient solar nebula, or if Ultima and Thule ejected other lobes that formed with them to dissipate energy and shrink their orbit. The alignment of the axes of Ultima and Thule indicates that before the merger the two lobes must have become tidally locked, meaning that the same sides always faced each other as they orbited around the same point.

“We’re looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation.”

As the Science paper reports, New Horizons researchers are also investigating a range of surface features on Ultima Thule, such as bright spots and patches, hills and troughs, and craters and pits on Ultima Thule. The largest depression is a 5-mile-wide (8-kilometer-wide) feature the team has nicknamed Maryland crater – which likely formed from an impact. Some smaller pits on the Kuiper Belt object, however, may have been created by material falling into underground spaces, or due to exotic ices going from a solid to a gas (called sublimation) and leaving pits in its place.

In color and composition, Ultima Thule resembles many other objects found in its area of the Kuiper Belt. It’s very red – redder even than much larger, 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer) wide Pluto, which New Horizons explored at the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt in 2015 – and is in fact the reddest outer solar system object ever visited by spacecraft; its reddish hue is believed to be caused by modification of the organic materials on its surface New Horizons scientists found evidence for methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule’s surface – a mixture very different from most icy objects explored previously by spacecraft.

Data transmission from the flyby continues, and will go on until the late summer 2020. In the meantime, New Horizons continues to carry out new observations of additional Kuiper Belt objects it passes in the distance. These additional KBOs are too distant to reveal discoveries like those on MU69, but the team can measure aspects such as the object’s brightness. New Horizons also continues to map the charged-particle radiation and dust environment in the Kuiper Belt.

The New Horizons spacecraft is now 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 33,000 miles (53,000 kilometers) per hour.

The Johns Hopkins University 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 MSFC Planetary Management Office provides the NASA oversight for the New Horizons. Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, directs the mission via Principal Investigator Stern, and 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.

NASA scientists say they were baffled to discover a frozen world a billion miles beyond Pluto is not shaped like a snowman. Images taken as the New Horizons spacecraft passed 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule) on New Year’s Day find the twin-lobed body is shaped more like a flattened pancake joined with a smushed walnut.


New Horizons took this image of the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule) on Jan. 1, 2019, when the NASA spacecraft was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond it. The image to the left is an “average” of ten images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI); the crescent is blurred in the raw frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera’s signal level. Mission scientists have been able to process the image, removing the motion blur to produce a sharper, brighter view of Ultima Thule’s thin crescent.

Images and video credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory

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.


This processed, composite picture combines nine individual images taken with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), each with an exposure time of 0.025 seconds, just 6 ½ minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69). The image was taken at 5:26 UT (12:26 a.m. EST) on Jan. 1, 2019, when the spacecraft was 4,109 miles (6,628 kilometers) from Ultima Thule and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. The angle between the spacecraft, Ultima Thule and the Sun – known as the “phase angle” – was 33 degrees.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute, National Optical Astronomy Observatory

The finding is important because planetary scientists had expected to find spherical masses — even two  spheres joined together. They are developing theories to explain how a flattened 20-mile long object resembling a pancake could form during the time the solar system itself was forming 4.6 billion years ago. Click here for details from NASA.



Data Download from Deep Space 

Distance reduces signal strength. Researchers expect to have better data — including images — to explain what they’re seeing in the coming months. At more than 4 billion miles from Earth, it takes over six hours for radio telemetry from New Horizons to reach NASA antennae. Then, there’s the size of the signal. Radio signals arrive at an infinitesimal fraction of the 12-to-14 watt broadcast from New Horizons. The radio signals arrive at earth with a strength of 4 x 10-(minus)-19 watts (that’s 0.00000000000000000004 of a watt!) “literally, a whisper from deep space.

The close-up photographs of the encounter take about six hours to reach Earth — the time it takes for radio waves travelling at the speed of light to travel four billion miles. The distance also reduces signal strength, slowing data download to a 500 bit-per second trickle.

What’s In a Name?

“Ultima Thule” was an ancient mapmaker’s name for the farthest known part of the world, the last known place — somewhere beyond Greenland (“Thule,” pronounced “TOO-Lee”). Formally known to astronomers as (486958) 2014 MU₆₉, the dwarf planet was discovered by researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope on June 26, 2014.

NASA welcomed the New Year by taking mankind on a first-time visit to a mysterious world at the edge of the solar system. At 12:33 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Jan. 1, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past Ultima Thule, a 20-mile long, 10-mile wide, twin-lobed body, shaped somewhat like a snowman, located in the outer reaches of the solar system, a billion miles past Pluto, about four billion miles from the sun, and the furthest world ever visited by human space probe.

NASA reported New Years Day that all went as planned: New Horizons passed about 2,200 miles from Ultima Thule, a world researchers believe to be composed of the primordial building blocks that helped form the sun and planets about 4.6 billion years ago. PBS Newshour reported the encounter represents a milestone in science and exploration (Click here to view online).




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 released on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Click here for complete details from NASA.

NASA scientists, including Principal Investigator Alan Stern, reported Wednesday that Ultima Thule is a “contact binary,” an object created by the slow-motion collision of two smaller sphere-shaped bodies, each of which separately formed by the accretion of dust and gas from when the solar system was first forming billions of years ago.

The larger, now dubbed “Ultima,” is about three times larger than the smaller, “Thule.” The body’s remarkable appearance, Stern reported, is unlike anything seen before and illuminates the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago.

Pictures from Pluto 

New Horizons literally wrote the book about what we know about Pluto. The spacecraft’s July 4, 2015 flyby revolutionized our understanding of the “dwarf planet.” Click here for what Detroit Performs and PBS wrote about the event.

“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.”

The movie above shows the propeller-like rotation of Ultima Thule in the nine hours between 20:00 UT (3 p.m. ET) on Dec. 31, 2018, and 05:01 UT (12:01 a.m.) on Jan. 1, 2019, as seen by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons as the spacecraft sped toward its close encounter with the Kuiper Belt object at 05:33 UT (12:33 a.m. ET) on Jan. 1. Click here for details from NASA.

The two bodies came together in a super slow-motion collision, perhaps as slow as 1 mph. They may have spent billions of years rotating around one another, about once every 15 hours.

The NASA scientists also described how comets explored by probes over the past two decades have often shown similar contact binary structure. The researchers believe the new data will shed light on how planets like Earth formed. More detailed images are expected in the coming days,


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 image above is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons’ high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule’s size and shape so far. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

NASA Ultima Thule approach

This sequence of three images, received on Dec. 31, 2018, and taken by the LORRI camera onboard New Horizons at 70 and 85 minutes apart illustrates the rotation of Ultima Thule. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

To get the latest word on New Horizons from NASA, click here.


The images above were taken on Dec. 30, 2018 as New Horizons was a little over a million miles from Ultima Thule. Details on the pictures from NASA:

Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 20 miles (30 kilometers), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). This shape roughly matches the outline of Ultima’s shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018.

Much more detailed images, and other kinds of data, will be gathered today and tomorrow as New Horizons speeds towards its closest approach to Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1. A small sample of these images and other data will be returned to Earth in the next few days, though it will take about 20 months to downlink the full data set.

New Horizons was approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) from Ultima when this image was taken on Dec. 30, 2018. 

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The photos were taken with LORRI — the LOng-Range Reconnaissance Imager — a remarkable camera built to work in the demanding and harsh conditions of deep space. Researchers hope the images will shed light on how planets and the solar system itself formed from gas and dust about 4.6 billion years ago. Other New Horizons instruments detect chemical compositions, surface temperatures and interplanetary dust. The data will serve to enlarge the astronomical atlas of worlds visited and explored by humanity to the far reaches of the solar system.

New Horizons flew by the Pluto System on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft returned a treasure trove of photographs and scientific measurements which have revolutionized our understanding of Pluto, its largest moon, Charon, and several smaller moons. Information gathered by New Horizons showed that Pluto undergoes active geologic processes — despite surface temperatures reaching minus-370 degrees Fahrenheit — and holds a thin atmosphere of nitrogen and methane.

Click here for details on the 2015 Pluto flyby from Detroit Performs.

About the size of a grand piano, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V-Centaur booster rocket. After reaching orbit, the Star 48B third stage engine fired the half-ton probe toward Jupiter.

New Horizons swung by the largest planet in the solar system on February 28, 2007. Jupiter’s gravitational pull sped up the spacecraft and then swung it out toward  Pluto. The process shaved off about three years of travel time.

Encouraged by the spacecraft’s near-flawless performance after nine years in space, NASA scientists set New Horizons on course for a second mission to the frozen space beyond Pluto: the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system comprised of myriad bodies, such as icy comets, rocky asteroids, dwarf planets, and planetisimals thought to coalesced from gas and dust at the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

“Ultima Thule” was an ancient mapmaker’s name for the farthest known part of the world, the last known place — somewhere beyond Greenland (“Thule,” pronounced “TOO-Lee”). Formally known to astronomers as (486958) 2014 MU₆₉, the dwarf planet was discovered by researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope on June 26, 2014.

Astronomers report Ultima Thule takes about 297 years to orbit the sun. It and the other objects in the Kuiper Belt are believed to have remained largely untouched from the time of their formation.

2019: Big Year for Outer Space

New Horizons’ visit to Ultima Thule may mark the auspicious beginnings to 2019, a year which commemorates the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first manned lunar landing, Apollo  11, when on July 20, 1969 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin stepped from the Lunar Module Eagle to explore the surface of the moon, while, overhead, astronaut Michael Collins piloted the Command Module Columbia in orbit around the moon.

What’s next for New Horizons? If all systems stay green, NASA may direct it for a third mission to another unexplored world, a place beyond Ultima Thule. Wow! Oh, wow!

For complete details on the New Horizons mission, and what all the acronyms mean, click here to NASA New Horizons online.