Category Archives: New Horizons

Ultima Thule First Look – Oh My!

OUTSTANDING! What else can one say? Just outstanding. We have the first clear look at Ultima Thule.

Yes we have color too! (click the image below for a larger version)

And of course you want particulars. I wasn’t going to put up another video but you might as well get the particulars straight from John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory — really good stuff:

Ultima Thule Flyby

Here’s the video from the first part of the coverage – data acquisition.

Ultima Thule flyby signal acquisition comes first at 14:45 UT / 09:45 ET. I’ll leave the link up for the post flyby press conference a couple hours later (16:30 UT / 11:30 ET).

Note: it is 15:15 UT and the coverage is about to start.

The spacecraft has data!  Press conference in about 45 minutes @ 16:30 UTC.

 

New Horizons On Track to Ultima Thule

This update video is from a couple of days ago; there will be a press conference later today but for now everything looks good for New Horizons on its way to flyby the Kuiper Belt Object called Ultima Thule at 05:33 UT / 00:33 ET tomorrow, New Years Day! I’ll try to update after the press conference if anything substantial happens. EDIT: If you noticed the ET time-conversion, you might be scratching your head – or not. I used 12:33 ET which would be correct as probably most North Americans are concerned, but it is indeed not proper if not just plain incorrect. I’ve corrected the time to be accurate.

Happy New Year wishes to everyone and if you are celebrating please be safe!!

Ultima Thule Here We Come!

On New Year’s Day the New Horizons spacecraft will visit a very distant “worldlet” called Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule is around 4,000 million miles / 6,438 million km from the Sun and New Horizon’s was launched on 19 January 2006. The little world is so far away it takes over six hours for a radio signal to reach us – a very long journey!

Have a look at this from New Horizons / John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

We Can See Ultima Thule

New Horizon’s is four months away from the Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule and we are getting our first look at it thanks to the LORRI imager on board the spacecraft. New Horizons was 172 million km / 107 million miles from Ultima Thule at the time. Ultima Thule is about 1.6 billion km / 1 billion miles BEYOND Pluto!

Be sure to click the image for a larger version.

NASA: Mission team members were thrilled – if not a little surprised – that New Horizons’ telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was able to see the small, dim object while still more than 100 million miles away, and against a dense background of stars. Taken Aug. 16 and transmitted home through NASA’s Deep Space Network over the following days, the set of 48 images marked the team’s first attempt to find Ultima with the spacecraft’s own cameras.

“The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist and LORRI principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter – and easier to see – as the spacecraft gets closer.”

This first detection is important because the observations New Horizons makes of Ultima over the next four months will help the mission team refine the spacecraft’s course toward a closest approach to Ultima, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, 2019. That Ultima was where mission scientists expected it to be – in precisely the spot they predicted, using data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope – indicates the team already has a good idea of Ultima’s orbit.

The Ultima flyby will be the first-ever close-up exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object and the farthest exploration of any planetary body in history, shattering the record New Horizons itself set at Pluto in July 2015 by about 1 billion miles. These images are also the most distant from the Sun ever taken, breaking the record set by Voyager 1’s “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth taken in 1990. (New Horizons set the record for the most distant image from Earth in December 2017.)

“Our team worked hard to determine if Ultima was detected by LORRI at such a great distance, and the result is a clear yes,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima’s doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!”

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto’s Super Frost

Probably not many people (including me) gave much thought about an active environment on the Plutonian system, you know Pluto, Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Thanks to New Horizons and other missions like it, we are rewriting text books.

NASA – These jagged geological ridges are found at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface, near its equator, and can soar many hundreds of feet into the sky – as high as a New York City skyscraper. They are one of the most puzzling feature types on Pluto, and it now appears the blades are related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.

A team led by New Horizons team member Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, has determined that formation of the bladed terrain begins with methane freezing out of the atmosphere at extreme altitudes on Pluto, in the same way frost freezes on the ground on Earth, or even in your freezer.

“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,” said Moore. “It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”
Continue reading

Fly Overs

There are two, first New Horizons over Pluto:

And second, a flyover of Charon:

NASA (via YouTube) – Using actual New Horizons data and digital elevation models of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, mission scientists have created flyover movies that offer spectacular new perspectives of the many unusual features that were discovered and which have reshaped our views of the Pluto system – from a vantage point even closer than the spacecraft itself.

2014 MU69 Surprises

The New Horizons spacecraft is of course already well past the Pluto system and heading towards the Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. It won’t get there for another year and a half at which time it will be about 43.4 AU (or 43.4 Earth-Sun distances) from the Sun.

Recently 2014 MU69 passed in front of a star and a surprising amount was learned by observing the osculation.

The image was taken with a 16 inch / 406 mm Dobsonian telescope which is awesome and comes from the links at the bottom of the press release from NASA. I am slowly gathering materials to build a 200 mm version of the same type of telescope — see here.

NASA – Scientists have been sifting through data gathered from observing the object’s quick pass in front of a star – an astronomical event known as an occultation – on June 3. More than 50 mission team members and collaborators set up telescopes across South Africa and Argentina, along a predicted track of the narrow shadow of MU69 that the occultation would create on Earth’s surface, aiming to catch a two-second glimpse of the object’s shadow as it raced across the Earth. Accomplishing the observations of that occultation was made possible with the help of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia, a space observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA).

Combined, the pre-positioned mobile telescopes captured more than 100,000 images of the occultation star that can be used to assess the environment around this Kuiper Belt object (KBO). While MU69 itself eluded direct detection, the June 3 data provided valuable and unexpected insights that have already helped New Horizons.

“These data show that MU69 might not be as dark or as large as some expected,” said occultation team leader Marc Buie, a New Horizons science team member from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

Initial estimates of MU69’s diameter, based primarily on data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope since the KBO’s discovery in 2014, fall in the 12-25-mile (20-40-kilometer) range – though data from this summer’s ground-based occultation observations might imply it’s at or even below the smallest sizes expected before the June 3 occultation.

Besides MU69’s size, the readings offer details on other aspects of the Kuiper Belt object.

“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”

More data are on the way, with additional occultations of MU69 occurring on July 10 and July 17. On July 10, NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will use its powerful 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope to probe the space around MU69 for debris that might present a hazard to New Horizons as it flies by in 18 months.

On July 17, the Hubble Space Telescope also will check for debris around MU69, while team members set up another groundbased “fence line” of small mobile telescopes along the predicted ground track of the occultation shadow in southern Argentina to try to better constrain, or even determine, the size of MU69.

Check out the star brightness, predicted shadow path and other tech specs for the July 10 and July 17 occultation events.