This is what looks like MU69 2014, nicknamed Ultima Thule. Three years after revealing the face of Pluto to the world, the New Horizons probe once again marks the history of space exploration by approaching and photographing a fossil from the formation of the Solar System, penned in the Kuiper belt, to more than 6.6 billion kilometers. It is the furthest world ever visited by a ship of terrestrial origin.
The New Horizons probe crews (engineers and scientists) spent New Year’s Eve together, staring at their screens to monitor all the vital signs of their ship, which at more than 44 times the distance between Earth and Sun – and a six-hour time difference – was close to Ultima Thule. The probe that made the first flight of famous and distant Pluto in July 2015 once again marked the story by making its rendezvous with the 2014 asteroid MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule.
Ultima Thule, because the star is to this day the most distant world ever explored by a human machine. “New Horizons has achieved the highest performance ever,” said Alan Stern, head of mission, Southwest Research Institute. But as the records are made to be beaten and that the probe continues anyway, it will probably not be his last step. The mission’s researchers are also looking for another target towards which to set the course. Especially in this remote and unknown region that is the Kuiper belt, which is full of other “Thule”, real fossils of the formation of the Solar System.
Is Ultima Thule double?
To know all (or almost) about Ultima Thule, witnessing the birth of the planets, it will still wait about 20 months, the time that all the data collected during its unique passage to 3,500 kilometers from the center of the asteroid, this first day of January, are transmitted drop by drop to the Earth, more than six light-hours away – and 6.6 billion kilometers – away. But what is reassuring, this first week of 2019, announces intense and hectic, Alan Stern and his team giving us an appointment every night to take stock and share the latest information.
The soap opera has already begun and the least we can say is that the first data and measurements received whet our appetite. So, what does 2014 MU69 look like? The images, still unclear, acquired on December 31st – when New Horizons was a little less than a million kilometers from Ultima – show us an elongated body that is reminiscent of a bowling pin. But then, a keel 32 kilometers long and 16 kilometers wide. Does all this hold together or is Ultima double? The question remains … especially since the observations made in various points of the Earth, several months ago, when the object passed in front of a star.
— New Horizons v2.0 (@NewHorizonsIMG) January 2, 2019
In any case, the researchers can boast of having already solved a mystery that had been tormenting them for a few days, that of the brightness of the star which did not vary despite its rotation. This is because one of the poles of Ultima’s axis of rotation is facing New Horizons, they have reported … a bit like a propeller.