New Horizons probe sends a sharper view of space snowman … with a bashed-in face

2014 MU69 image
This image of 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, was captured by New Horizons’ MVIC camera on Jan. 1 and stored in the probe’s memory banks. The image was sent back to Earth for processing on Jan. 18-19. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Photo)

NASA’s New Horizons probe has already shown that its icy target, more than 4 billion miles away on the solar system’s edge, looks like a cosmic snowman — but a higher-resolution version of the picture reveals the snowman to have an eerie pair of “eyes” set in what looks to be a deep depression.

The 19-mile-long object — which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by its informal nickname, Ultima Thule — consists of what looks like two balls of ice and rock stuck together. Scientists suspect that there are many similar objects, known as contact binaries, in the broad ring of icy material known as the Kuiper Belt.

New Horizons zoomed past 2014 MU69 back on New Year’s Day, snapping hundreds of pictures as it passed. Since then, the piano-sized probe has been transmitting data at a slow, deliberate speed of roughly 1,000 bits per second.

The first pictures were fuzzy, but now New Horizons is raising the resolution. The picture released today is based on imagery that was acquired by the Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera, part of the probe’s Ralph instrument suite, from a distance of 4,200 miles.

The original image resolution was 440 feet per pixel, but after the image was transmitted to Earth on Jan. 18-19, the New Horizons team sharpened the picture using a process known as deconvolution.

Sharpening the image brings out lots of previously fuzzed-over features, including that 4-mile-wide depression where the snowman’s face should be. The two bright spots in the depression could be reflective material lying in pits at the bottom of the depression. Other areas of the snowman are pockmarked with less prominent pits.

New Horizons’ science team says it’s not yet clear whether those pits are impact craters or features resulting from other processes, such as the collapse of surface structures or the ancient venting of volatile materials.

The bright and dark patterns crisscrossing the snowman, including the “collar” where 2014 MU69’s two lobes meet, just might serve as a treasure map pointing to how the object was put together not long after the solar system’s birth 4.5 billion years ago.

“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in today’s image advisory. “Over the next month, there will be better color and better-resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”

New Horizons has now passed more than 18.5 million miles beyond 2014 MU69 and is traveling farther out at a speed of more than 31,500 mph. It takes six hours and nine minutes for radio signals to travel back to Earth from the spacecraft, and it’s expected to take 20 months for New Horizons to send back all the data collected during the flyby.