NSN Webinar: New Horizons: Beyond Pluto

NSN Webinar: New Horizons: Beyond Pluto

  • Nighttime Event
  • Inside Venue
  • Target Audience
  • Teen, Adult
Image Source/Credit: : NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko ; and Orkan Umurhan.

NASA Night Sky Network members joined Orkan Umurhan on Wednesday, October 16, as he discussed the latest information about the New Horizons mission and its flyby of the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69. You can watch the recording below or on our YouTube page. Powerpoint presentation slides are also available below or at this link.

About New Horizons: Beyond Pluto
The New Horizons team used the Hubble Space Telescope to search for its post-Pluto, Kuiper Belt flyby target. Using observations made with Hubble on June 26, 2014, the science team (led by co-investigator Marc Buie) discovered an object that New Horizons could reach with its available fuel. The object was subsequently designated 2014 MU69, given the minor planet number 485968 and, with public input, nicknamed "Ultima Thule" (which means "beyond the known world").

MU69 is located in the Kuiper Belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune. At 12:33 a.m. (EST) on January 1, 2019, New Horizons flew just 2,200 miles (3,500) kilometers from the object's surface, when it was about 4 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from the Sun -- the most distant planetary flyby in history and the first close-up look at a solar system object of this type.

Ultima Thule is the first unquestionably primordial contact binary ever explored. Approach pictures hinted at a strange, snowman-like shape, but further analysis of images, taken near closest approach, uncovered just how unusual the KBO's shape really is. At 22 miles (35 kilometers) long, the binary consists of a large, flat lobe (nicknamed "Ultima") connected to a smaller, rounder lobe (nicknamed "Thule").

This strange shape was the biggest surprise of the flyby. Nothign like it has been found anywhere in the solar system -- sending the planetary science community back to the drawing board to understand how planetesimals (the building blocks of the planets) form.
Because it is so well preserved, MU69 offered our clearest look back to the era of planetesimal accretion and the earliest stages of planetary formation. Apparently the two lobes once orbited each other, like many so-called binary worlds in the Kuiper Belt, until something brought them together in a "gentle" merger.

In color and composition, New Horizons data revealed that MU69 resembles many other objects found in its region of the Kuiper Belt. Consistent with pre-flyby observations from the Hubble Telescope, Ultima Thule is very red – redder even than Pluto, which New Horizons flew past on the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt in 2015 – and about the same color as many other so-called "cold classical" KBOs. ("Cold" referring not to temperature but to the circular, uninclined orbits of these objects; "classical" in that their orbits have changed little since forming, and represent a sample of the primordial Kuiper Belt.)
New Horizons scientists have also seen evidence for methanol, water ice and organic molecules on the surface -- a spectrum similar to some of the most extreme objects we've seen in the outer solar system.

Flyby data transmission continues, with all data expected on the ground by late summer 2020.

About Dr. Orkan Umurhan
Dr. Umurhan's research focuses on evolutionary processes both on planetary surfaces and in protoplanetary disks. Dr. Umurhan joined the New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Investigation Team in June of 2013, providing mathematical modeling framework for the Pluto system. Dr. Umurhan regularly writes blogposts for NASA about New Horizons and he is also a co-author on a graduate level textbook on fluid dynamics for physicists.

Related Resources
NASA's Page on the New Horizons Mission to the Pluto System
NASA's official site for news about New Horizons

New Horizons Mission Page
Learn about the details of the New Horizons Mission and its continuing discoveries as data continues to trickle in to Earth from the distant probe.

Take your event deeper into this topic with the Night Sky Network activity Sorting the Solar System.  This activity explores how solar system objects are classified.  It turns out there is a lot of overlap in characteristics in the various categories, and some objects could easily get placed in more than one.

Last update: October 16, 2019
 

Video

NSN Webinar: New Horizons: Beyond Pluto

NASA Night Sky Network members joined Orkan Umurhan on Wednesday, October 16, as he discussed the latest information about the New Horizons mission and its flyby of the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69. 

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