Searching for Ultima Thule Moons
NASA's New Horizons space probe is sending back images of the most distant object ever to be explored by mankind
Ultima Thule, the ancient space object that was recently explored by NASA’s New Horizons space probe may have moons.
On New Year’s Day, New Horizons performed a flyby of the distance space object, which is located in the Kuiper Belt, past Neptune. The snowman-shaped 33-kilometer bit of rock is the farthest-away object to have ever been explored by mankind- an object believed to be a good example of primordial materials – rocks that fused together to become planets at the beginning of our solar system.
Now NASA is trying to figure out if Ultima Thule has a moon. Its rotation gives reason to believe that it does.
Ultima Thule is made up of two rounded bodies, reddish in color, that at some point in the distant past – perhaps about the same time as Earth was forming, 4.5 billion years ago – bumped into each other and fused together giving Ultima Thule – whose official name is 2014 MU69 – its snowman shape. Based on mathematical models, Ultima Thule should be rotating every three to four hours. However, it takes the space object 15 hours to make a full spin, leading NASA to believe that Ultima Thule has or had a moon(s) – slowing the rotation.
If NASA is able to find a moon or orbiting object, it will also help scientists to learn more about Ultima Thule’s composition.
“Any moon at all, on any orbit at all, will tell us the mass and the density to pretty decent usable precision, and so we’re very, very excited about that prospect,” Mark Showalter, a New Horizons co-investigator from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, said during a news conference Thursday.
Meanwhile, the images of Ultima Thule have been improving from their initial low-resolution, as New Horizons continues to shoot data back to Earth. The space probe, which was launched in 2006, had the initial objective of performing a flyby of the most famous dwarf planet, Pluto, which it successfully completed in 2015. Having explored Pluto and now sending back images of Ultima Thule, the New Horizons team is now considering even further objects to explore while New Horizons’ nuclear battery still has a few years of life left in it.
With NASA’s New Horizon’s exploration of Ultima Thule, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx orbiting of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, and China’s Chang’e 4 rover’s landing on the far side of the moon- it’s been a very big week for space enthusiasts.