First faint image of Ultima Thule

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Ultima Thule, first image

In anticipation of receiving data from the fly-by just past midnight last night, the New Horizons team has released the image above, taken 24 hours earlier.

Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 20 miles (30 kilometers), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). This shape roughly matches the outline of Ultima’s shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018.

This object is definitely strangely shaped.

New Horizons is traveling fast, which is why we won’t get good images until practically the instant the fly-by happens. And the first downloads from that fly-by are due to arrive within the next two hours. Keep your fingers crossed that the spacecraft operated as programmed and captured Ultima Thule in all its weird glory.

One point about the sad state of journalism these days. Numerous media publications posted stories last night celebrating that fly-by, as if they knew it was a success. This is bunk. We won’t know what happened until this morning. To imply we do is the hallmark of fake news.



  • Kirk

    Real time Deep Space Network status:
    Madrid antenna #63 is assigned to New Horizons, awaiting AOS.

    NASA TV is also doing live coverage.

  • Kirk

    It’s alive!

  • Kirk

    Good status across the board — healthy spacecraft confirmed!

    First science data downlink reception will start at 15:15 EST today.

    (That DSN Now link I gave above wasn’t particularly useful as it doesn’t update as often as I thought.)

  • Michael Nelson

    An elongated shape of about 30km with no discernable change in light curve? Is it Rama time?!?!?

  • Edward

    A good example of a problem during close approach is the Giotto probe to Halley’s Comet (Comet Halley) in 1986. There was at least one impact with a small particle that disrupted its ability to point correctly, so some data collection was lost. Another impact damaged a camera, but not until after closest approach, so that camera got some good data. The coma of a comet seems to be hazardous for a high speed flyby.

    Giotto survived its Halley’s Comet encounter and was redirected, via an Earth flyby, to fly past a second comet in 1990. Ultima Thule is also New Horizons’s second encounter. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the team can find a third object for New Horizons to examine?

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