NASA unveils the secrets of Ultima Thule, the prehistoric space pancake



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NASA / Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University / Southwestern Research Institute / ESA

The most distant world we have ever explored, Ultima Thule, continues to get worse, but NASA scientists are beginning to unravel the mysteries.

From NASA The New Horizons spaceship flew over the distant ancient space rock on January 1, some 4 billion kilometers from Earth, after 13 years at the edge of the solar system. The original mission of New Horizons was to study Pluto, but after an extension, the NASA and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory team sent him to explore a an object much farther from home: a small two-body space rock discovered just five years ago. , officially named 2014 MU69.

The unusual lobed form of Ultima Thule.

NASA / Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University / Southwest Research Institute

On March 18, NASA held its first press briefing since January 1 and several researchers were on hand to describe the geology, the origin, the surface characteristics and the unusual shape of the MU69 pancakes. 2014.

New Horizons has been able to image the extraterrestrial world extensively on his super brief flyby and start sending data back to Earth. Since the spacecraft is about 6.6 billion kilometers away, all of its important scientific data is just spinning on Earth, but there are already a lot of things to do with which to work.

"The data we already have on the ground is just what you're going to put your mouth watering," said Alan Stern, senior investigator at the press conference, "and that really changes our ideas about the way the small bodies of the Kuiper belt, the building blocks of planets like Pluto were formed. "

Nicknamed "Ultima Thule", a Latin expression referring to a distant world, this unusual two-lobed rock is composed of a flat lobe resembling a pancake nicknamed "Ultima" and a small round rock nicknamed " Thule ". The research team suspects however that these two bodies are not always nested. After a slow orbital dance, they finally came together to form a brand new little one.

The slow fusion of two bodies leads to the Ultima Thule that we see today.

Derek Richardson / Julian Marcohnic / University of Maryland

"What Ultima Thule teaches us is that the formation of a binary that first forms as a co – orbital couple, then merges, fits into a major class of the formation of our entire solar system, "said William McKinnon, co-researcher. at the University of Washington.

Ultima Thule is a true and ancient relic of our solar system that gives scientists a better idea of ​​how planets and small planetary bodies (called "planetesimals") begin to form.

But the way Ultima Thule has appeared is not the only thing that intrigues the research team.

Although most of the Ultima Thule images are black and white, the planet is technically "ultra red". According to Carly Howlett, a member of New Horizons' science team, this is the first time an "ultra-red" object has been explored, raising even more questions. "Color imaging even reveals subtle color differences all over the surface, and we really want to know why," she said in a press release.

The entire press conference is available online and includes presentations from a number of members of the New Horizons team.

The researchers will continue to exploit the data that New Horizons returns – and expect to continue to receive the treasure of extraterrestrial information until at least the summer of 2020. The spaceship itself is not necessarily used either, with the idea of ​​receiving another extension of the mission and images from an even more distant world a distinct possibility.

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