NASA researchers find evidence of water, organics on Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule

NASA has found evidence for methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule's surface.

NASA has found evidence for a unique mixture of methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule's surfacethe farthest world ever explored by mankind.

The US space agency has published the first profile of Ultima Thulean ancient relic from the era of planet formationrevealing details about the complex space object.

Analysing just the first sets of data gathered during the New Horizons spacecraft's New Year's 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69nicknamed Ultima Thuleunveil much about the object's development, geology and composition.

Researchers are also investigating a range of surface features on Ultima Thule, such as bright spots and patches, hills and troughs, and craters and pits on Ultima Thule.

NASA researchers find evidence of water, organics on Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule

Artist's concept of the close encounter between New Horizons and the oddly-shaped Ultima Thule. Image: NASA

The largest depression is an eight-kilometer-wide feature the team has nicknamed Maryland craterwhich likely formed from an impact.

Some smaller pits on the Kuiper Belt object, however, may have been created by material falling into underground spaces, or due to exotic ices going from a solid to a gas and leaving pits in its place.
In colour and composition, Ultima Thule resembles many other objects found in its area of the Kuiper Belt. Its reddish hue is believed to be caused by modification of the organic materials on its surface.

According to the research published in the journal Science, the team found evidence for methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule's surfacea mixture very different from most icy objects explored previously by spacecraft.

"We're looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

"There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation," said Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission.

The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface. At left is an enhanced color image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. The center image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object. Imahe: NASA JHUL

The first colour image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (1,37,000 kilometers) on 1 January 2019 highlights its reddish surface. Image: NASA JHUL

Ultima Thule is a contact binary, with two distinctly differently shaped lobes, NASA said.

At about 36 kilometers long, Ultima Thule consists of a large, strangely flat lobenicknamed "Ultima"connected to a smaller, somewhat rounder lobedubbed "Thule"at a juncture.

How the two lobes got their unusual shape is an unanticipated mystery that likely relates to how they formed billions of years ago, NASA said in a statement.

The lobes likely once orbited each other until some process brought them together in what scientists have shown to be a "gentle" merger.

For that to happen, much of the binary's orbital momentum must have dissipated for the objects to come together, but scientists do not yet know whether that was due to aerodynamic forces from gas in the ancient solar nebula, or if Ultima and Thule ejected other lobes that formed with them to dissipate energy and shrink their orbit. The alignment of the axes of Ultima and Thule indicates that before the merger the two lobes must have become tidally locked, meaning that the same sides always faced each other as they orbited around the same point.

Data transmission from the flyby continues and will go on until the late summer 2020. In the meantime, New Horizons continues to carry out new observations of additional Kuiper Belt objects it passes in the distance.

The New Horizons spacecraft is now 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth, operating normally and speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 53,000 kilometers per hour.

Loading...




also see

science