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:
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.)
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
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.
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
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.
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.