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Emily LakdawallaDecember 27, 2018

New Horizons fast approaching 2014 MU69

New Pictures of a Rapidly Enlarging, But Strangely Still, Dot

Gravity waits for no one, least of all politics, and I, for one, think that’s refreshing. Unaffected by the shutdown of the U.S. government, New Horizons is still on course for its New Year’s encounter with 2014 MU69 (nicknamed “Ultima Thule”). The show will go on! The spacecraft will be fine, its operators at APL will be at their consoles, and the Deep Space Network is ready to receive the data. All the facts in my What to Expect post remain true. Here’s how to keep up with the mission:

When does New Horizons fly by 2014 MU69/Ultima Thule? When will we get pictures? Read my article.

Where can I watch New Horizons flyby live events? On NASA TV.

Whom do I follow on Twitter for news? Check my list of people in the know about the MU69 flyby.

Where can we see the latest imaes from LORRI? At the New Horizons website.

And now, what you’re all here for -- the pictures. I will regularly update this post with the latest photos and key tweets, placing the most recent ones at the top.

Update 31 December 2018 19:52 UT

At a press briefing today, the team shared the Failsafe A photo, which shows about 4 or 5 pixels across 2014 MU69. It's not enough for detail, but enough to know it's not round. We still don't know its not-round shape: More like Itokawa or Eros or Churyumov-Gerasimenko? We'll find out a bit more with the Failsafe B downlink tomorrow. (For an explanation on what the Failsafe downlinks are, read this blog post.)

Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 from a distance of 1.9 million kilometers

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 from a distance of 1.9 million kilometers

It's just a fuzzy blob but I couldn't resist throwing it into my montage of asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft. I'll update this with better quality pictures as they arrive on Earth!

Here is my first attempt at a montage of 2014 MU69 with the other small isolated worlds we've visited. We'll need just a few more pixels to really know what we're looking at :) pic.twitter.com/x67NaLG9BC

— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) December 31, 2018

Update 30 December 2018 18:14 UT

The New Horizons team has launched the raw images website for the MU69 encounter! The images are not much to look at just yet, but will get exciting as time goes on. I wrote a Twitter thread about downloading and interpreting the raw LORRI MU69 approach images. Here's the final image from that thread:

New Horizons raw MU69 approach images as of 30 December 2018

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

New Horizons raw MU69 approach images as of 30 December 2018
The 9 images in this animation include 6 taken on 29 December from a distance of about 4 million kilometers and 3 taken on 30 December from a distance of about 2 million kilometers. They have been brightened and aligned on background stars to help identify which dot is 2014 MU69, New Horizons' flyby target.

Update 27 December 2018 16:34 UT

This is an excellent (and long) Twitter thread from New Horizons team member Alex Parker reflecting on the discovery of MU69:

In just a few hours I will depart for Maryland for New Horizons' New Years flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object (486958) 2014 MU69. Before I go, I thought I would re-tell some of the stories about how we came to know about this little world. pic.twitter.com/iE7f0KeFVK

— Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker) December 26, 2018
Parallax on 2014 MU69

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Parallax on 2014 MU69
Between August and December 2018, New Horizons took optical navigation photos of the tiny Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 to improve navigators' predictions of its future path. At first, the world didn't move much against the background of stars, but as New Horizons got within tens of millions of kilometers in December, the position appeared to shift more and more rapidly. These images are very long exposures in order to make faint stars visible. MU69 is not yet resolved in any of them; its light spreads over many pixels but the object itself is smaller than a pixel, so it's not possible to discern its shape yet.

2014 MU69 from 10 million kilometers

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

2014 MU69 from 10 million kilometers
This image shows the first detection of 2014 MU69 (nicknamed "Ultima Thule"), using the highest resolution mode (known as "1x1") of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Three separate images, each with an exposure time of 0.5 seconds, were combined to produce the image shown here. All three images were taken on 24 December 2018 at 01:56 UT spacecraft time and were downlinked to Earth about 12 hours later. The original images are 1024 x 1024 pixels, but only a 256 x 256 pixel portion, centered on MU69 (circled in orange), is displayed. The other objects visible in this image are nearby stars. At the time this image was taken, MU69 was 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from the Sun and 6.3 million miles (10 million kilometers) from the New Horizons spacecraft. Previous LORRI images required using its lower resolution mode ("4x4"), which has one-quarter the resolution of 1x1 mode, and longer exposure times, 30 seconds each, for the images taken from mid-August through early December 2018. Higher-resolution images taken within a range of 10 million kilometers will enable better optical navigation to the small Kuiper belt object as well as higher-spatial-resolution searches for any nearby moons.

The early-approach pictures are not the prettiest -- the tiny, faint world is hard to detect. But scientists have already discovered a major mystery: they can’t see a light curve. Everything in the solar system rotates, and usually that means there’s a subtle (or not-so-subtle) dimming and brightening of the object’s light because of surface features or non-circular shape. But New Horizons’ observations of MU69 have detected no light curve at all. Read more about the mystery here.

Read more: trans-neptunian objects, New Horizons, pretty pictures, New Horizons KBO target, mission status

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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