NASA released its latest images of Ultima Thule, taken just before its closest approach, offering the highest resolution images of the Kuiper belt object (KBO) yet. At the time, New Horizons was 4,109 miles (6,628 km) from Ultima Thule and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth, mission team members said.
Knowing the challenges of obtaining such sharp images as the probe sped by, mission scientists described their plans to obtain them as a "stretch goal", something desirable but risky, with questionable chances of success.
The images were captured with the help of the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager a few minutes before the spacecraft reached to closest distance to Ultima Thule (classified as 2014MU69) on January 1st.
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"Bullseye!" said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute and Principal Investigator for New Horizons. "This was a much tougher observation than anything we had attempted in our 2015 Pluto flyby".
On New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past the 21-mile-long (34 kilometers) Ultima Thule, setting a record for the most distant planetary encounter in history.
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has captured and released the most detailed image of the Ultima Thule yet, along with other photos.
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Images of Ultima Thule are resolved at 110ft per pixel, the highest resolution pictures New Horizons has received of the asteroid. "Some of the details we now see on Ultima Thule's surface are unlike any object ever explored before", said Stern.
While the scientists already know details about the Ultima Thule, such as its two-part "pancake" shape, these higher-quality images show the details that weren't visible till date. The picture also provides a better look at dark pits near the boundary between Ultima's sunlit and shadowed sides. "Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team", said John Spencer, deputy project scientist from SwRI.
All raw images returned by LORRI, including the ones used to create the composite, are posted to the instrument's website every Friday for public viewing. New Horizons is almost 4.13 billion miles (6.64 billion kilometers) from Earth; at that distance, radio signals, traveling at light speed, reach the large antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network six hours and nine minutes after New Horizons sends them.
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New Horizons has been beaming flyby data and imagery home to its handlers ever since, and will continue to do so for another 18 months. Mission operations manager Alice Bowman of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory reports that the spacecraft is continuing to operate flawlessly.