Ultima Thule’s First Puzzle

Dec. 23, 2018: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is 12 million km from Ultima Thule and closing fast. On New Year’s Day, it will fly by the mysterious Kuiper Belt Object three times closer than it buzzed Pluto in 2015 revealing … no one knows what. In fact, the mysteries have already begun.

Long range images of Ultima Thule reveal that it has no light curve. In other words, its brightness is constant.

Above: An artist’s concept of Ultima Thule, a double-lobed object in the Kuiper Belt

“It’s really a puzzle,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. And here’s why:

Last year, astronomers watched a distant star pass behind Ultima Thule. Starlight winked in and out in a pattern suggesting an elongated object with two bulbous lobes. Ultima Thule could be a binary system. You would expect the reflected brightness of such an object to vary as it rotates in the sunlight. Yet Ultima Thule does not behave that way.

What’s going on? New Horizons science team members have different ideas. “It’s possible that Ultima’s rotation pole is aimed almost right at the spacecraft,” speculates Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute. Such an alignment, however, is unlikely.

“Another explanation,” says the SETI Institute’s Mark Showalter, “is that Ultima may be surrounded by a cloud of dust that obscures its light curve–much the same way that a comet’s coma often overwhelms the light reflected by its central nucleus.”

“A more bizarre scenario is one in which Ultima is surrounded by many tiny tumbling moons,” suggests University of Virginia’s Anne Verbiscer, a New Horizons assistant project scientist. “If each moon has its own light curve, then together they could create a jumbled superposition of light curves that make it look to New Horizons like Ultima has a small light curve.”

“It’s hard to say which of these ideas is right,” Stern says. “We’ll get to the bottom of this puzzle soon – New Horizons will swoop over Ultima and take high-resolution images on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, and the first of those images will be available on Earth just a day later. When we see those high–resolution images, we’ll know the answer to Ultima’s vexing first puzzle. Stay tuned!”

GIFTS FROM THE EDGE OF SPACE: The students of Earth to Sky Calculus are about to kick off a new year of cosmic ray balloon launches, continuing a 5-year campaign to monitor increasing levels of radiation in Earth’s atmosphere. You can help. Buy any gift item from the Earth to Sky Store and we’ll give you 10% off to celebrate the New Year.

All items in the Earth to Sky Store have flown to the edge of space onboard cosmic ray balloons. Each one comes with a greeting card showing the item in flight and telling the story of its journey. All sales support the Earth to Sky Calculus cosmic ray ballooning program and hands-on STEM research.

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