Just hours before a historic rendezvous with Ultima Thule, the farthest object ever visited by a spacecraft, scientists with NASA's New Horizon's mission get a first thrilling glimpse of their goals.
Until Sunday, the remote appeared more than a billion and a half miles beyond Pluto, which was no more than a single pixel in the spacecraft's camera. But on Monday, when New Horizon's probe became ever closer to 14.4 km per second, Ultima Thule finally began to reveal its shape.
"We know it's not around – it's one thing we can say with confidence," said John Spencer, a member of the mission science team, during a Monday afternoon press release at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD. New horizons.
Dr. Spencer, who is with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., Confirmed that the latest image shows that Ultima Thule is an elongated body, about 30 kilometers long, although it is not yet clear whether it is a single object or two or more in contact.
The picture was taken on Sunday when the spacecraft was still 1.5 million miles from its 12:33 ET ET rendezvous on January 1. Due to the large distance of the probe from Earth and the relative weakness of the signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image.
The point of view is, in accordance with information astronomers, discovered about the object over the last two years when they observed that it is passing in front and darkens distant stars. A version of the image with superimposed lines shows where stars flashed as they passed behind the Ultima Thule, and two red circles indicate how Ultima Thule would be oriented if it really is a few objects.
The researcher has been amazed at why Ultima Thule does not appear to change in brightness, which would be expected from an elongated object alternately showing its short and long sides as it rotates.
JJ Kavelaars, a science team member and astronomer with the National Research Council in Canada, said New Horizons has now checked that the object is spinning, but it is not yet clear how fast.
New Horizons, flying at Pluto in 2015, is now on a mission to reveal the Kuiper Belt, a region stretching far beyond our solar system's outer planets and populated by tens of thousands of dark, frozen bodies over 100 meters across, is believed to be relics from the formation of the solar system.