NASA researchers have managed to capture the highest resolution image yet of Ultima Thule, the oldest object ever explored by spacecraft. The New Horizons probe visited the object on New Year’s Day and gathered information on its size and shape.
The new image was taken at 12:26 a.m. EST on January 1, 2019, when the spacecraft was just 4,109 miles (6,628 kilometers) from Ultima Thule and was a staggering 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. It was particularly difficult to capture this image because the camera only has a narrow field of view and it had to be lined up and timed precisely with the object.
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, was delighted that the team managed to capture the image. “Bullseye!” he said in a statement. “Getting these images required us to know precisely where both tiny Ultima and New Horizons were — moment by moment — as they passed one another at over 32,000 miles per hour in the dim light of the Kuiper Belt, a billion miles beyond Pluto. This was a much tougher observation than anything we had attempted in our 2015 Pluto flyby.”
The high resolution of the images has allowed scientists to get an even closer look at the object, including features that weren’t visible before like bright patches of terrain which are strangely circular and dark pits of craters that could have been caused by impacts from other bodies or collapse within Ultima Thule. The team is now working on understanding what the cause of these features could be.
These images are the highest resolution ever gathered by New Horizons as it journeys through the Kuiper Belt. The craft is now an impressive 4.13 billion miles (6.64 billion kilometers) from Earth and its operations continue to work perfectly even at this tremendous distance. To track the craft as it travels out towards new and unknown Kuiper Belt objects, you can follow along on the Where Is New Horizons website.