NASA’s New Horizon Spacecraft continues making history.
The Spacecraft is currently flying near the edge of our solar system and as it continues to explore the previously unseen region, it’s sending back a plethora of data and images.
To be precise, on New Years’ Eve, and following a 13-year trip through our solar system NASA’s New Horizons finally reached Ultima Thule, a small, icy ‘world located a mind-bending 4 billion miles from the sun.
NASA’s Spacecraft zipped by Ultima Thule, officially designated (486958) 2014 MU69 at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour, which is nearly the same speed the spacecraft was traveling as it flew past Pluto, back in 2015.
However, unlike Pluto which is a dwarf planet and massive compared to ultima Thule, this strange object is about 100 times smaller, measuring a mere 20 miles long.
When New Horizons zipped passed Pluto and its moons, it had days to New capture images and scientific data of the former planet.
However, as New Horizons made its way passed Ultima Thule, it only had a matter of minutes to gather as much data as possible.
And while New Horizons‘ visit may have been brief, it was important and helped us understand a lot about cosmic objects located beyond Pluto.
New Horizon’s success makes Ultima Thule the most distant cosmic object ever to be photographed ‘up close’.
It is reported that New Horizons snapped around one thousand images of the cosmic object that eerily resembles BB8 from Star Wars.
All the data and images New Horizons captured of Ultima Thule have been slowly traveling back to Earth since New Year’s Eve.
Receiving all the data won’t be easy, as the transmission time between the location of where New Horizons is now, and our planet happens to be just over six hours. Furthermore, the download rate is just 500 bits per second.
This means that the lowest-resolution imagery the spacecraft captured is the first to arrive.
And New Years’ Day gave us nothing more than a few pixels, where Ultima Thule appeared as a blurry, weird-looking object in the distance.
However, a day later, things changed, and the blurry image turned into a shape.
Things improved dramatically as new images made their way back to Earth, and the spacecraft’s Color imagery confirmed that Ultima Thule is reddish, but also unusually dark.
The world looks like a cosmic snowman, or if you prefer, like BB8. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever come across in the solar system, and scientists say that it’s because Ultima Thule is a ‘Contact Binary’.
“What you’re seeing here is the first ‘contact binary’ ever explored by a spacecraft,” explained New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.
“Two completely separate objects joined together.”
Eventually, New Horizons mission specialists named the larger object “Ultima” and the smaller one “Thule.”
Ultima Thule, at 4 billion miles from Earth, is composed of the very materials that served for the formation of the solar system. The distant alien world has changed very little since then, and that’s a good thing.
The images and data collected during the rapid flyby of New Horizons will serve to travel more than 4 billion years into the past and learn about the environment that existed when Earth, as well as other planets in our solar system, formed.