Images of Ultima Thule bring insight into planet formation

Jack Wassik, Sci/Tech Editor

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It was announced in 2014, after the New Horizons spacecraft passed Pluto, that there was a new object that the craft could reach with its remaining fuel. That object was Ultima Thule (or MU69), meaning “beyond known world”.

Ultima Thule is located in the Kuiper Belt which is a part of the solar system beyond the eight planets. Back in 2014, it was estimated that the New Horizon’s Voyager would be roughly 3,500 kilometers away from the object.

Based on initial observations from the Hubble Telescope, artists have described the object as two connected spheres. As a joke, scientists have referred to Ultima Thule as a snowman planet.

The reason for Ultima Thule’s importance is because it belongs to a class of planetary objects known as Cold Classicals, which have kept their original shape since their formation almost 4.6 billion years ago.

NASA released images this past Friday showing that Ultima Thule is not in fact a snowman-shaped object but actually more like two pancakes, as some have referred to it. These pictures were captured about ten minutes after the spacecraft passed by, which was traveling at over 31,000 miles per hour.

By observing how Ultima Thule blocked out the light of background stars in a sequence of images, they were able to map the shape of parts of the object that were not illuminated by the sun.

Although, expectations of Ultima Thule fell flat. NASA and other scientists are still hoping that these images and new computational models will allow us to better understand what material early planets formed from and how they formed.

Alan Stern of the Southwest Reseach Institute said, “This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth. Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”

However, these are not the only images that NASA will release. They are still processing many more that will still further our understanding of Ultima Thule, its formation and possibly our own solar system’s formation.