On December 31st, 2018, NASA’sNew Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This came roughly two and a half years after New Horizons became the first mission in history to conduct a flyby of Pluto. This latest encounter led to some stunning images of the KBO as the spacecraft made it’s approach.
But of course, these were not the last images New Horizons was going to capture of this object. While making its flyby of Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day, the spacecraft took a number of images that revealed something very interesting about Ultima Thule’s shape. Rather than consisting of two spheres that are joined together, Ultima Thule is actually made up of two segments – one that looks like a pancake, the other a walnut.
On December 31st, 2018, NASA’sNew Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This came roughly two and a half years after New Horizons became the first mission in history to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Much like the encounter with Pluto, the probe’s rendezvous with Ultima Thule led to a truly stunning encounter image.
And now, thanks to a team of researchers from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL), this image has been enhanced to provide a more detailed and high-resolution look at Ultima Thule and its surface features. Thanks to these efforts, scientists may be able to learn more about the history of this object and how it was formed, which could tell us a great deal about the early days of the Solar System.
On December 31st, 2018, NASA and the New Horizon‘s team (plus millions of people watching the live stream at home) rang in the New Year by watching theNew Horizons mission make the first rendezvous in history with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). About thirty minutes after the probe conducted its flyby of Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), the mission controllers were treated to the first clear images ever taken of a KBO.
Since the first approach photographs were released (which were pixilated and blurry), the New Horizons team has released new images from the spacecraft that show Ultimate Thule in color and greater detail. It’s appearance, which resembles that of a snowman, beautifully illustrates the kinds of processes that created our Solar System roughly four and a half billion years ago.
In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Since that time, the spacecraft’s mission was extended so it could make its way farther into the outer Solar System and become the first spacecraft to explore some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). It’s first objective will be the KBO known as 2014 MU69, which was recently given the nickname “Ultima Thule” (“ultima thoo-lee”).
These strange features showed people for the first time how radically different the surface of Pluto is from Earth and the other planets of the inner Solar System. But strangely, they also showcased how this distant world is also quite similar to Earth. For instance, in a new study, a team of researchers working on the images from the New Horizons mission noticed “dunes” on the surface of Pluto that resemble sand dunes here on Earth.
The study, titled “Dunes on Pluto“, was recently published in the journal Science. The study was led by Matthew Telfer, a Lecturer in Physical Geography from the University of Plymouth, with significant contributions provided by Eric J. R. Parteli and Jani Radebaugh – geoscientists from the University of Cologne, and Brigham Young University, respectively.
On Earth, dunes are formed by wind-blown sand that create repeated ridges in the desert or along beaches. Similar patterns have been observed along river beds and alluvial plains, where water deposits sediment over time. In all cases, dune-like formations are the result of solid particles being transported by a moving medium (i.e. air or water). Beyond Earth, such patterns have been observed on Mars, Titan, and even on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
However, when consulting images from New Horizons probe, Telfer and his colleagues noted similar formations in the Sputnik Planitia region on Pluto. This region, which constitutes the western lobe of the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, is essentially a massive ice-covered basin. Already, researchers have noted that the surface appears to consist of irregular polygons bordered by troughs, which appear to be indications of convection cells.
As Dr. Telfer told Universe Today via email:
“We first saw some features looked kind of dune-like within the first few days, but as time passed, and new images came in, most of these seemed less and less convincing. But one area became more and more convincing with every pass. This is what we’re reporting on.”
Another interesting feature is the dark streams that are a few kilometers long and are all aligned in the same direction. But equally interesting were the features that Telfer and his team noticed, which looked like dunes that ran perpendicular to the wind streaks. This indicated that they were transverse dunes, the kinds that pile up due to prolonged wind activity in the desert.
To determine if this was a plausible hypothesis, the researchers constructed models that took into account what kind of particles would make up these dunes. They concluded that either methane or nitrogen ice would be able to form sand-sized grains that could be transported by typical winds. They then modeled the physics of Pluto’s winds, which would be strongest coming down the slopes of the mountains that border Sputnik Planum.
However, they also determined that Pluto’s winds would not be strong enough to push the particles around on their own. This is where sublimation played a key role, where surface ice goes from a solid phase directly to a gas when warmed by sunlight. This sublimation would provide the upward force necessary to lift the particles, at which point they would be caught by Pluto’s winds and blown around.
As Dr. Telfer explained, this conclusion was made possible thanks to the immense amount of support his team got, much of which came from the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Science Theme Team:
“Once we’d done the spatial analysis that made us really sure that these features made sense as dunes, we had the great opportunity to hook up with Eric Parteli at Cologne; he showed us through his modelling that the dunes should form, as long as the grains become airborne in the first place. The NASA New Horizons team really helped here, as they pointed out that mixed nitrogen/methane ices would preferentially fling methane ice grains upwards as the ices sublimated.”
In addition to showing that Pluto, one of the most distant objects in the Solar System, has a few things in common with Earth, this study has also shown just how active Pluto’s surface is. “It shows us that not only is Pluto’s surface affecting its atmosphere, the converse is also true,” said Dr. Telfer. “We have a really dynamic world’s surface, so far out in the solar system.
On top of that, understanding how dunes can form under Pluto’s conditions will help scientists to interpret similar features found elsewhere in the Solar System. For example, NASA is planning on sending a mission to Titan in the coming decade to study its many interesting surface features, which include its dune formations. And many more missions are being sent to explore the Red Planet before a crewed mission takes place in the 2030s.
Knowing how such formations were created are key to understanding the dynamics of the planet, which will help answer some of the deeper questions about what is taking place on the surface.
Pluto has been the focus of a lot of attention for more than a decade now. This began shortly after the discovery of Eris in the Kuiper Belt, one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that led to the “Great Planetary Debate” and the 2006 IAU Resolution. Interest in Pluto also increased considerably thanks to the New Horizons mission, which conducted the first flyby of this “dwarf planet” in July of 2015.
The data this mission provided on Pluto is still proving to be a treasure trove for astronomers, allowing for new discoveries about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere, and even formation. For instance, a new study produced by researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (and supported by NASA Rosetta funding) indicates that Pluto may have formed from a billion comets crashing together.
The origin of Pluto is something that astronomers have puzzled over for some time. An early hypothesis was that it was an escaped moon of Neptune that had been knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s current largest moon, Triton. However, this theory was disproven after dynamical studies showed that Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. With the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, the true of origin of Pluto began to become clear.
Essentially, while Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, it is similar in orbit and composition to the icy objects that surround it. On occasion, some of these objects are kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and become long-period comets in the Inner Solar System. To determine if Pluto formed from billions of KBOs, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr. examined data from the New Horizons mission on the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia.
This large glacier forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface (aka. Pluto’s “Heart”). They then compared this to data obtained by the NASA/ESA Rosetta mission, which studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) between 2014 and 2016. As Dr. Glein explained:
“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation. We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”
This research also comes up against a competing theory, known as the “solar model”. In this scenario, Pluto formed from the very cold ices that were part of the protoplanetary disk, and would therefore have a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun. In order to determine which was more likely, scientists needed to understand not only how much nitrogen is present at Pluto now (in its atmosphere and glaciers), but how much could have leaked out into space over the course of eons.
They then needed to come up with an explanation for the current proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto could only be explained by burial in surface ices or destruction from liquid water. In the end, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr.’s research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, which was created by comets, was modified by liquid water, possibly in the form of a subsurface ocean.
“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Dr. Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”
While the research certainly offers an interesting explanation for how Pluto formed, the solar model still satisfies some criteria. In the end, more research will be needed before scientists can conclude how Pluto formed. And if data from the New Horizons or Rosetta missions should prove insufficient, perhaps another to New Frontiers mission to Pluto will solve the mystery!
In 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In addition to revealing things about the planet’s atmosphere, its geology and system of moons, the probe also provided the first clear images of the surface of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Because of this, scientists are now able to study Pluto and Charon’s many curious surface features and learn more about their evolution.
Another interesting thing that has resulted from this surface imaging has been the ability to name these features. Recently, the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclatureofficially approved of a dozen names that had been proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team. These names honor legendary explorers and visionaries, both real and fictitious, and include science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke.
Aside from being Pluto’s largest moon, Charon is also one of the larger bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Because of its immense size, Charon does not orbit Pluto in the strictest sense. In truth, the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system is outside Pluto, meaning the two bodies almost orbit each other. The moon also has a wealth of features, which include valleys, crevices, and craters similar to what have been seen on other moons.
For some time, the New Horizons team has been using a series of informal names to describe Charon’s many features. The team gathered most of them during the online public naming campaign they hosted in 2015. Known as “Our Pluto“, this campaign consisted of people from all over the world contributed their suggestions for naming features on Pluto and Charon.
The New Horizons team also contributed their own suggestions and (according to the IAU) was instrumental in moving the new names through approval. As Dr. Alan Stern, the New Horizon team leader, told Universe Today via email: “We conduced a public feature name bank process in 2015 before flyby. Once flyby was complete our science team created a naming proposal for specific features and sent it to IAU.”
A similar process took place last year, where the IAU officially adopted 14 place names that were suggested by the New Horizons team – many of which were the result of the online naming campaign. Here too, the names were those that the team had been using informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters that were discovered during the spacecraft’s flyby.
The names that were ultimately selected honored the spirit of epic exploration, which the New Horizons mission demonstrated by being the first probe to reach Pluto. As such, the names that were adopted honored travelers, explorers, scientists, pioneering journeys, and mysterious destinations. For example, Butler Mons honors Octavia E. Butler, a celebrated author and the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship.
Similarly, Clarke Montes honors Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific writer and futurist who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he later turned into a series of novels). Stanley Kubrik, who produced and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also honored with the feature Kubrik Mons. Meanwhile, several craters were named in honor of fictional characters from famous stories and folklore.
The Revati Crater is named after the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata while the Nasreddin Crater is named for the protagonist in thousands of folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia. Nemo Crater honors the captain of the Nautilus in Jule’s Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).
The Pirx Crater is name after the main character in a series of short stories by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, while the Dorothy Crater takes its name from the protagonist in The Wizard of Oz, one of several children’s stories by L. Frank Baum that was set in this magical land.
As Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, commented, “I am pleased that the features on Charon have been named with international spirit.” Dr. Alan Stern expressed similar sentiments. When asked if he was happy with the new names that have been approved, he said simply, “Very.”
Even though the encounter with the Pluto system happened almost three years ago, scientists are still busy studying all the information gathered during the historic flyby. In addition, the New Horizons spacecraft will be making history again in the not-too-distant future. At present, the spacecraft is making its way farther into the outer Solar System with the intention of rendezvousing with two Kuiper Belt Objects.
On Jan. 1st, 2019, it will rendezvous with its first destination, the KBO known as 2014 MU69 (aka. “Ultima Thule“). This object will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft, and the encounter will the farthest ever achieved in space exploration. Before this intrepid exploration mission is complete, we can expect that a lot more of the outer Solar System will be mapped and named.
Since that time, New Horizons has carried on to the Kuiper Belt for the sake of conducting more historic encounters. In preparation for these, the probe also established new records when it used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take a series of long-distance pictures. These images, which have since been released to the public, have set the new record for the most distant images ever taken.
At present, the New Horizons probe is at a distance of 6.12 billion km (3.79 billion mi) from Earth. This means that images taken at this point are at a distance of 40.9 Astronomical Units (AUs), or the equivalent of about 41 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. This it slightly farther than the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, which was snapped by the Voyager 1 mission when it was at a distance of 6.06 billion km (3.75 billion mi; 40.5 AU) from Earth.
This historic picture was taken on February 14th, 1990 (Valentine’s Day) at the behest of famed astronomer Carl Sagan. At the time, Sagan was a member of the Voyager imaging team, and he recommended that Voyager 1 take the opportunity to look back at Earth one more time before making its way to the very edge of the Solar System. For more than 27 years, this long-distance record remained unchallenged.
However, in December of 2017, the New Horizons team began conducting a routine calibration test of the LORRI instrument. This consisted of snapping pictures of the “Wishing Well” cluster (aka. the “Football Cluster” or NGC 3532), an open galactic star cluster that is located about 1321 light years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation of Carina.
This image (shown above) was rather significant, given that this star cluster was the first target ever observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (on May 20th, 1990). While this image broke the long-distance record established by Voyager 1, the probe then turned its LORRI instrument towards objects in its flight path. As part of the probes mission to rendezvous with a KBO, the team was searching for forward-scattering rings or dust.
As a result, just two hours after it had taken the record-breaking image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, the probe snapped pictures of the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) known as 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 (seen below, left and right). These images once again broke the record for being the most distant images taken from Earth (again), but also set a new record for the closest-ever images ever taken of KBOs.
“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched. And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”
As one of only five spacecraft to travel beyond the Outer Planets, New Horizons has set a number of other distance records as well. These include the most-distant course-correction maneuver, which took place on Dec. 9th, 2017, and guided the spacecraft towards its planned flyby with the KBO 2014 MU69. This event, which will happen on Jan. 1st, 2019, will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.
In the course of its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons team seeks to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs” – i.e. former KBOs that have unstable orbits that cause them to cross the orbit of the gas giants. At present, the New Horizons spacecraft is in hibernation and will be brought back online on June 4th, – when it will begin a series of checks to make sure it is ready for its planned encounter with MU69.
The spacecraft is also conducting nearly continuous measurements of the Kuiper Belt itself to learn more about its plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment. These efforts could reveal much about the formation and evolution of the Solar System, and are setting records that are not likely to be broken for many more decades!
When it made its historic flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft gave scientists and the general public the first clear picture of what this distant dwarf planet looks like. In addition to providing breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, and mountain chains, one of the more interesting features it detected was Pluto’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.
According to data obtained by New Horizons, these features are made almost entirely out of methane ice and resemble giant blades. At the time of their discovery, what caused these features remained unknown. But according to new research by members of the New Horizons team, it is possible that these features are the result of a specific kind of erosion that is related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.
Ever since the New Horizons probe provided a detailed look at Pluto’s geological features, the existence of these jagged ridges has been a source of mystery. They are located at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface near it’s equator, and can reach several hundred feet in altitude. In that respect, they are similar to penitentes, a type of structure found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator.
These structures are formed through sublimation, where atmospheric water vapor freezes to form standing, blade-like ice structures. The process is based on sublimation, where rapid changes in temperature cause water to transition from a vapor to a solid (and back again) without changing into a liquid state in between. With this in mind, the research team considered various mechanisms for the formation of these ridges on Pluto.
What they determined was that Pluto’s bladed terrain was the result of atmospheric methane freezing at extreme altitudes on Pluto, which then led to ice structures similar to the ones found on Earth.The team was led by Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who was also a New Horizons’ team member. As he explained in a NASA press statement:
“When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground. It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”
But unlike on Earth, the erosion of these features are related to changes that take place over the course of eons. This should come as no surprise seeing as how Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years (or 90,560 Earth days), meaning it takes this long to complete a single orbit around the Sun. In addition, the eccentric nature of it orbit means that its distance from the Sun ranges considerably, from 29.658 AU at perihelion to 49.305 AU at aphelion.
When the planet is farthest from the Sun, methane freezes out of the atmosphere at high altitudes. And as it gets closer to the Sun, these ice features melt and turn directly into atmospheric vapor again. As a result of this discovery, we now know that the surface and air of Pluto are apparently far more dynamic than previously thought. Much in the same way that Earth has a water cycle, Pluto may have a methane cycle.
This discovery could also allow scientists to map out locations of Pluto which were not photographed in high-detail. When the New Horizons mission conducted its flyby, it took high-resolution pictures of only one side of Pluto – designated as the “encounter hemisphere”. However, it was only able to observe the other side at lower resolution, which prevented it from being mapped in detail.
But based on this new study, NASA researchers and their collaborators have been able to conclude that these sharp ridges may be a widespread feature on Pluto’s “far side”. The study is also significant in that it advances our understanding of Pluto’s global geography and topography, both past and present. This is due to the fact that it demonstrated a link between atmospheric methane and high-altitude features. As such, researchers can now infer elevations on Pluto by looking for concentrations of methane in its atmosphere.
Not long ago, Pluto was considered one of the least-understood bodies in our Solar System, thanks to its immense distance from the Sun. However, thanks to ongoing studies made possible by the data collected by the New Horizons mission, scientists are becoming increasingly familiar with what its surface looks like, not to mention the types of geological and climatological forces that have shaped it over time.
And be sure to enjoy this video that details the discovery of Pluto’s bladed terrain, courtesy of NASA’s Ames Research Center:
Since it made its historic flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, the New Horizons mission has been venturing farther into the outer Solar System. With the spacecraft still healthy and its system in working order, the mission was extended to include the exploration of additional Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). The first target for this part of its mission is the KBO known as 2014 MU69, which New Horizons is currently making its way towards.
In the past, NASA believed this object was a spherical chunk of ice and rock measuring 18–41 km (10–30 mi) in diameter. However, a more recent occultation observation has led the New Horizon‘s team to conclude that MU69 may actually be a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an “extreme prolate spheroid”) or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching – aka. a close or contact binary.
In 2015, MU69 was identified as one of two potential destinations for New Horizons and was recommended to NASA by the mission science team. It was selected because of the immense opportunities for research it presented. As Alan Stern, the Principle Investigator (PI) for the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), indicated at the time:
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by. Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
The most recent observation of the KBO took place on July 17th, 2017, when the object passed in front of a star. This provided the New Horizon’s team with an opportunity to measure the resulting dip in the star’s luminosity – aka. an occultation – using a series of telescopes that they had deployed to a remote part of Patagonia, Argentina. These sorts of observations are performed regularly in order to obtain estimates of an asteroid’s size and position.
In the case of MU69’s occulation, the New Horizons team was able to obtain vital data that will help the mission planners to plot the trajectory of their flyby. In addition, the data revealed things about MU69’s size, shape, orbit, and the environment that surrounds it. It was because of this that the team began to question earlier estimates on the object’s size and shape.
Based on their new observations, they are confident that the object is no more than 30 km (20 mi) long, if it is an extreme prolate spheroid. If, however, it is a binary, the two objects that compose it are believed to measure about 15-20 km (9-12 mi) in diameter each. Alan Stern expanded on these new findings in a recent NASA press statement, saying:
“This new finding is simply spectacular. The shape of MU69 is truly provocative, and could mean another first for New Horizons going to a binary object in the Kuiper Belt. I could not be happier with the occultation results, which promise a scientific bonanza for the flyby.”
The recent stellar occulation was the third of three observations conducted for the New Horizons mission. To prepare for the event, the New Horizons team traveled to Argentina and South Africa on June 3rd. On July 10th, a week before the occultation, NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) provided support by studying the space around MU69.
Using its 2.5 m (100-inch) telescope, SOFIA was looking for debris that might present a hazard to New Horizons spacecraft as it makes its flyby less than 17 months from now. Last, but certainly not least, the team also relied on data provided by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the ESA’s Gaia satellite to calculate and pinpoint where MU69 would cast its shadow on Earth’s surface.
Thanks to their assistance, the New Horizons team knew exactly where the occultation shadow would be and set up their “fence line” of small, mobile telescopes accordingly. Marc Buie – the New Horizons co-investigator – was responsible for leading the observation campaign. As he explained, the data it yielded will be of great help in the planning the flyby, but also indicated that their could be some surprises in the future:
“These exciting and puzzling results have already been key for our mission planning,” he said, “but also add to the mysteries surrounding this target leading into the New Horizons encounter with MU69, now less than 17 months away.”
The flyby with MU69 is scheduled to take place on Jan. 1st, 2019, and will be the most distant flyby in the history of space exploration. In addition to being 1.6 billion km (1 billion mi) from Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft will be 6.5 billion km (4 billion mi) from Earth! What’s more, the first-ever study of a KBO is expected to yield some fantastic scientific data, and tell us much about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.