In focus: Ultima Thule

In focus: Ultima Thule

Introduction

  • 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“.

 

Composition

  • Data from New Horizons suggests evidence of methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule.

 

Surface features

Pictures of Ultima Thule highlight

  • Bright spots and patches
  • Hills and troughs
  • Craters and pits
  • An impact crater, 8-kilometer-wide, nicknamed Maryland crater.

 

Significance

  • 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 Horizon 

  • 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.

 

Section : Science & Tech
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