Ultima Thule – The First Visit to a Kuiper Belt Object at the Fringe of Our Solar System

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) durable New Horizon spacecraft made its close flyby of Pluto on 14 July 2015, passing 7,800 mi (12,500 km) above the surface of that dwarf planet and returning a remarkable trove of photos and data.  Since then, the spacecraft has been continuing its journey out of our solar system and now is flying through the Kuiper Belt, which is a very large, diffuse region beyond the orbit of Neptune containing millions of small bodies in distant orbits around the Sun.  These Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) are believed to be “leftovers” (i.e., they never coalesced into planets) from the formation of the early solar system.  You can read more about the Kuiper Belt on the NASA website here:

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/solar-system/kuiper-belt/overview/

On 28 August 2015, NASA announced that it had selected the next destination for New Horizons after the Pluto flyby: a small KBO designated 2014 MU69, now commonly known as Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto.  The spacecraft’s trajectory from Earth to Ultima Thule is shown in the following NASA diagram.

Source: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Southwest Research Institute

On 1 January 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft made a close flyby of Ultima Thule, at a range of 2,200 miles (3,500 km) and a relative speed of 14 kilometers per second (31,317 mph). At a distance of 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from the Earth, radio signals took 6 hours and 6 minutes traveling at the speed of light to traverse the distance between the spacecraft and Earth during the encounter.

NASA released the following image, taken at long range, of an irregularly-shaped, spinning Ultima Thule on 1 January, well before

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane

NASA reported: “At left 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. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist’s impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima’s spin axis is indicated by the arrows. “

In the weeks ahead, New Horizons will be downloading all of the higher-resolution photos and data acquired during its close encounter with Ultima Thule and we’ll be getting a much more detailed understanding of this KBO. 

It appears that NASA has the opportunity to target one or more additional KBOs for future New Horizons flybys in the 2020s.  The spacecraft’s electric power source, a plutonium (Pu-238)-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), is capable of providing power well into the 2030s, albeit at gradually reducing power levels.  In addition, the spacecraft has significant hydrazine fuel remaining for course correction and attitude control en route to a future KBO flyby.

You’ll find more information on NASA’s New Horizons mission here:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

2 January 2019 Update: NASA released a new photo taken on the inbound leg of the flyby, still 18,000 miles (28,000 km) from Ultima Thule

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

NASA reported: “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)…”