First Glimpse Of The Farthest Object Ever Visited By A Spacecraft

Jan 7, 2019

Despite the government shutdown, NASA was live streaming on New Year’s Day as the New Horizons space craft made a flyby of the most distant object humanity has ever explored – an icy, red, snowman-shaped object known as 2014 MU69. You may have heard it referred to by its nickname Ultima Thule.   

The first images from New Horizons were released January 2 and have given scientists a fair bit to chew on. It appears that MU69 is the result of two separate bodies colliding at low speed more than 4.5 billion years ago.  

Simply receiving the first images of MU69 was a cause for celebration.

“This is an amazing little spacecraft about the size of a grand piano, built in the early 2000s with basically flip-phone technology,” Richard Binzel told Living Lab Radio. Binzel is Professor of Planetary Sciences and Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT and a co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission.  

“It has been in flight for 13 years, four billion miles, and performing flawlessly. It's absolutely astounding.”

NASA didn’t even know that MU69 existed when New Horizons set out to study Pluto. But after doing its Pluto flyby, scientists began to look ahead. The robot spacecraft was heading toward the Kuiper belt, an asteroid belt beyond Neptune.

MU69 happened to be "by the side of the road."

“It was interesting because it was an object we could reach,” Binzel said. “It almost didn't matter what object we saw because this is the first time we have ever seen one of these objects out in this region four billion miles from the sun. It's a new discovery no matter what.”

Getting all the data back from New Horizons is like trying to download a high-definition movie over a noisy telephone line, Binzel said. It’s going to take about a year. But it will be worth the wait to see close-up pictures of an object so far from earth.

MU69 is like a snapshot in time of some of the first accumulation of materials in space, he explained. These bits of rock collected more material over time and became the planets, including Earth.

“We're getting a look back in time even before the earth existed,” Binzel said.

Will New Horizons see other objects along the way? NASA hasn’t looked yet, but scientists are proposing to do just that.

“We have an incredibly healthy spacecraft; we’ve shown incredible capability of these instruments, and with a little bit of luck we'll find another object that's up on the path ahead and we'll just keep exploring,” Binzel said.