New Year, New Day, New Image of Ultima Thule

01 January 2019 image of Ultima Thule by New Horizons spacecraft and sketch of object and rotation courtesy James Tuttle Keane
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane

During a morning press briefing aired on NASA TV on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons mission team leaders revealed the latest best image of Ultima Thule. Still a blur, the Kuiper Belt body’s shape is more apparent in this latest image. Still unclear: are the two lobes connected or are they in fact two separate objects orbiting each other? The pole of the object was pointed toward the spacecraft, meaning Ultima Thule rotates from that perspective like a propellor. Artist and planetary scientist James Tuttle Keane has helped visualize this geometry in his illustration included next to the image.

New Horizons has already passed by Ultima Thule safely and completed a sequence of data collection including higher resolution images of the object’s surface. It will take time for these data to be downlinked to Earth, but the team expects over the next two days to receive and release to the science community and public high resolution images that reveal Ultima Thule’s true shape and surface geology.