In focus: Ultima Thule
- Ultima Thule is a small rocky and icy trans-Neptunian planetesimal in the Kuiper belt about 30 km in radius.
- Planetesimal is one of many small solid celestial bodies thought to have existed at an early stage in the development of the solar system
- Ultima Thule belongs to a class of Kuiper belt objects called the “cold classicals”.
- Ultima Thule is a contact binary made up of 2 differently shaped lobes.
- One is a large, strangely flat lobe nicknamed “Ultima“
- The other is a smaller, somewhat rounder lobe named “Thule“.
- Data from New Horizons suggests evidence of methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule.
Pictures of Ultima Thule highlight
- Bright spots and patches
- Hills and troughs
- Craters and pits
- An impact crater, 8-kilometer-wide, nicknamed Maryland crater.
- Since it is an ancient relic, the discoveries will help in better understanding of solar system formation.
In brief: Kuiper Belt Objects and New Horizons Mission
- Kuiper belt extends from about 30 to 50 AU (Astronomical Unit, 1 AU= distance between Sun and Earth) from the Sun.
- When the solar system was young, a large number of icy planetesimals formed in the region beyond Jupiter.
- The gravitational forces of the massive Jovian planets pushed most of these planetesimals beyond Neptune’s orbit, concentrating them into a belt centered on the plane of the ecliptic called as Kuiper Belt.
- The objects in the Kuiper Belt are called trans-Neptunian objects or Kuiper Belt Objects.
- The objects within the Kuiper Belt form the most primitive objects from the beginning of the formation of the solar system.
- Besides, most of the comets also have their origin in Kuiper belt.
- Thus, Kuiper Belt is a laboratory for studying well-preserved primitive material from the planet formation era 4.5 billion years ago.
- New Horizons is NASA’s space mission to Pluto and Kuiper Belt Objects.
- New Horizons has revolutionized our understanding of most remote members of the solar system.
- Launched in 2006, it went past Pluto and Charon in 2015.
- It is also the first mission to explore the solar system’s “third zone,” the region beyond the giant planets called the Kuiper Belt.