As of December 31, 2018, NASA New Horizons The mission made history by being the first spacecraft to encounter a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This happened about two and a half years later. New Horizons became the first mission in history to carry a Pluto overfly. Much like the encounter with Pluto, the encounter of the probe with Ultima Thule led to a truly impressive encounter image.
And now, thanks to a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), this image has been enhanced to provide a more detailed and high-resolution view of Ultima Thule and its surface features. Thanks to these efforts, scientists can learn more about the history of this object and how it was formed, which could tell us a lot about the beginnings of the Solar System.
The original image was obtained by the Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) – one of two components that make up the New Horizons Ralph telescope – on January 1, 2019, when the spacecraft was 6,700 km from Ultima Thule. The image had a resolution of 135 meters (440 feet) per pixel when it was stored and then transmitted back to Earth as part of the spacecraft's data package (January 18-19).
The image was then subjected to a process known as deconvolution, where the images are enhanced to improve fine detail (which also amplifies the graininess of the images when viewed in high contrast). The resulting convolution image reveals new topographic details along the terminator (day / night boundary) near the top thanks to the oblique illumination pattern.
Like Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), explained in a recent JHUAPL press statement:
"This new image is beginning to reveal differences in the geological character of the two wolves of Ultima Thule, and it is also presenting us with new mysteries. Next month, there will be better colors and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule. "
The details that are most apparent in this improved photo include numerous small holes that are up to about 700 meters (2,300 feet) in diameter. The great feature in the smaller of the two wolves – which measures 7 km (4 mi) in diameter – also appears to be a deep depression. Both lobes also show many intriguing patterns of light and dark, not to mention the brilliant "collar" where the two lobes are connected.
At present, it is not clear how these characteristics and patterns formed, but there are several possibilities that can reveal much about the history of the object. For example, deep depressions may be impact craters resulting from collisions that occurred over the lifetime of the object of 4.45 billion years. Or they may be the result of other processes, such as the internal collapse or ventilation of volatile materials at the beginning of its history.
Further studies of these characteristics may reveal clues about how Ultima Thule was assembled during the formation of the Solar System, ca. 4.5 billion years ago. Currently, New Horizons is about 6.64 billion km (4.13 billion mi) of Earth and moves toward the edge of the Solar System more than 50,700 km (31,500 mi) per hour.
Excluding additional extensions, the New Horizons The mission is scheduled to last until 2021. At that time, the mission is expected to be able to find and study more objects from the Kuiper Belt (KBOs), which will reveal more about the earliest history of our Solar System.
Further reading: JHUAPL