Tuesday , January 31 2023

The new Horizons have discovered something strange about Ultima Thule



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The Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, which saw Nev Horizons on August 16, 2018. Patterns around it are bright background stars.
Image: NASA / JHUAPL / SvRI

NASA New Horizons is on its way to Ultima Thule, a route that will take NASA's spaceship past this mysterious Kuiper Belt facility on New Year's Day. But as the probe approaches, mission specialists must already face a rather strange observation – an anomaly in the way Ultima Thule reflects the incoming light.

The new Horizons will reduce Ultima Thule at 12:33 and ET on January 1, 2019, at a speed of more than 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kilometers per hour) and at a distance of about 2,500 miles (3,500 kilometers). We will be able to see the building in exceptional detail, but until then, designers have to face an unexpected mystery. Analyzing hundreds of recordings by Nev Horizons so far, project scientists are trying to measure their brightness – but they failed to detect periodic changes in Ultima's luminosity as it rotates.

Ultima Thule, as we already know, is not a spherical shape. After 2017, observations made by a telescope in Argentina suggested that it was oval or cigar, or even even two objects that are close to each other (binary pair) or even touching (contact binary). That's all right, because we've seen these objects before (here, here and here). However, what is strange in this case is that Ultima does not show repeated variations in the light – the kind of thing you would expect from a rotating object because its surface reflects the incoming light from the Sun. These periodic pulsations of the curves of light or light, in the speech of astronomers, are all negligible in Ultima Thule.

"It's a real puzzle," says chief investigator Nev Horizons Alan Stern in a statement. "I call this Ultima the first puzzle – why is there such a small light curve that we can not even detect? I expect that detailed flight information will come soon to give us more mysteries, but I did not expect it so fast."

Artistic impression of the new horizons by Ultima Thule.
Illustration: NASA / Applied Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University / Southwest Research Institute

So why is this remote Kuiper Belt subject without a false detection curve?

Marc Buie, a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said it is possible that the Ultima Thule rotation pole directs directly to Nev Horizons as it approaches. So, from the perspective of the space ship, Ultima Thule is spinning, but the spaceship is able to see only the same reflective side – the absence of the curve of light. It would be like looking at a hot circle from above directly. This is a good and probably the most memorable explanation, but requires that Nev Horizons just conclude with this Ultima Thule in this particular orientation.

"Another explanation," said Mark Shovalter of the SETI Institute, "is that Ultima can be surrounded by a cloud of dust that blurs its curvature of light, just as coma coma often outperforms the light reflected in its central [core]. "

This is another decent explanation, but, as Shovalter admitted, a heat source would be needed to make a coma of this size. The sun is 4 billion kilometers from the ultraviolet, and its rays are probably too small to produce such an effect.

Anne Verbiscer, a researcher at the University of Virginia and a research associate of Nev Horizons, says Ultima Thule can be surrounded by many dead months. In this multi-stage scenario, each Moon would produce its own curve of light, but collectively these curves would appear, the words of Verbiscer, as "transversal supersize of the curves of light." From the perspective of Nev Horizons, this would look like one, a small curve of light. The problem with this theory is that in the Solar System we have never seen anything like this, and if it is true, that would represent a new kind of astronomical phenomenon.

It's a pure mystery, but the riddle needs to be solved in the coming days as Nev Horizons approaches its target. I hope that the alien telecommunications range is directly directed to the Earth, but unfortunately, it is probably just a dark, dead wall with a rather weird twist.

[NASA New Horizons]
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