By JULIE LAFRANZO
Before you can talk about Ultima Thule, you have to talk about the New Horizon space telescope. New Horizon was a mission sent up on Jan. 19, 2006. Its mission was to go to Pluto and take higher quality pictures of it so that scientists could get a sense of what it was really like there, and then
Before New Horizon, it was assumed that Pluto was going to be a frozen “wasteland” because of its distance from the sun.
“[It] took nine years to get all the way to out there even though it was the faster spacecraft,”said Herbert Folsom, adjunct professor of Astronomy. Once it got there, it was “the first time we got a good picture of Pluto.” Pluto had a lot more than scientists expected, having volcanoes and possibly organic material at one point in time.
As a fun fact, and possibly “something you didn’t know [about new horizon], was that the man who found Pluto died and his cremations were put on New Horizon when it was sent out to Pluto,” Folsom said.
After Pluto, New Horizon took a turn heading for the Kuiper Belt.
“[They] used the rest of their fuel to angle it in another direction,” Folsom said.
This new angle took them towards the object known as Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule means “beyond the borders of the known world” and it is the farthest place that human have ever explored, according to NASA New Horizons website.
Ultima Thule was first spotted as two round objects stuck together like a snowman.
“We just assumed it was circular because of pictures, even though it was more likely it would be more irregularly shaped,” Folsom said. This is why it should be no surprise to find that Ultima Thule is more like a walnut stuck to a pancake in shape. New Horizon has given us pictures of Ultima Thule at more angles that shows us that it is not, in fact, spherical.
This makes a lot of sense because, as Folsom said, most of those asteroids are odd in shape, and so why would this one be any different?
“A lot of those asteroids are in a ‘rubble pile,’” said Dr. Charles Nelson, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics. “They are kind of potato shaped.”
Some of the objects in the Kuiper Belt, including Ultima Thule, are classified as “Cold Classicals” because they “could be the very first stuff our solar system was made of,” Folsom said. “It probably hasn’t changed over all of that time.”
This could mean that this object would be, not only the farthest things from Earth to be studied, but also one of the oldest things.
All the different planetary objects in the Kuiper belt are being affected by the gravity of the sun and so they are orbiting around it.
“They are attracted by the tiniest bit of gravity [to each other],” Nelson said.
Which is why it is a possibly that Ultima Thule could have “moons,” Nelson said. Not exactly like our moon but still objects rotating around it because there is some gravitational attraction to the each other in all the small planetary objects in the Kuiper Belt. Many might not expect an object like this to have a moon but still, it’s a possibility. The universe is often a lot more than we expect.