Enigmatic ‘Albedo’ Markings Spotted on the Most Distant Object Ever Explored

"We've never seen anything like this anywhere in the solar system."

It’s a strange solar system out there.

The analysis of the data sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft of its exploratory mission of Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule (located more than 6 billion kilometers away from Earth) has revealed fascinating surface features.

As new data is being analyzed, scientists are coming across unexpected things.

A ‘Pancaked’ object covered in strange markings

Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Mission scientists exposed their unusual findings at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ultima Thule is the first primordial contact binary explored by a spacecraft.

As New Horizons made its way towards Ultima, it captured a series of images that first revealed a snowman-like object in the distance.

View with 3D Glasses: This image of Ultima Thule can be viewed with red-blue stereo glasses to reveal the Kuiper Belt object's three-dimensional shape. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory
View with 3D Glasses: This image of Ultima Thule can be viewed with red-blue stereo glasses to reveal the Kuiper Belt object’s three-dimensional shape. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

As the spacecraft got closer and closer, high-resolution images were snapped and sent back to Earth.

Now, analysis of a series of images taken at a distance of approximately 3,500 kilometers from the contact binary has revealed the true shape of the object, as well as a set of curious Albedo Markings that cover its surface.

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Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Ultima isn’t really your typical comic snowman and has been found to resemble a… well… galactic pancake.

It’s kind of flat-ish.

But in addition to that, it is covered with strange markings.

Oh and, No, it wasn’t aliens.

NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/SWRI.
NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/SWRI.

With a diameter of around 35 kilometers, Ultima Thule consists of a large, flat lobe (nicknamed “Ultima”) connected to a smaller round lobe (nicknamed “Thule”).

This strange form is perhaps the biggest surprise.

Stranger than Strange

“We’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“It is sending the planetary science community back to the drawing board to understand how planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – form.”

Being so well preserved, Ultima Thule offers our clearest look towards the era of planetesimal accretion and the earliest stages of planetary formation. Apparently, the two lobes of Ultima Thule orbited each other in the distant past, like many of the so-called binary worlds in the Kuiper Belt, until something joined them in a “soft, and gentle fusion.”

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

“This fits with general ideas of the beginning of our solar system,” said William McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator from Washington University in St. Louis.

“Much of the orbital momentum of the Ultima Thule binary must have been drained away for them to come together like this. But we don’t know yet what processes were most important in making that happen.”

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Strange Marks

But scientists say that the gentle fusion that most likely brought these two objects together may have left its mark on the surface.

The “neck” connecting Ultima and Thule is reworked and could indicate shearing as the lobes combined, explained Kirby Runyon, a New Horizons science team member from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Runyon and other geologists are describing and trying to understand the many features of Ultima Thule’s surface, from bright spots and patches to hills and valleys, passing through craters and pits.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The craters, although at first look like impact craters, may have entirely different origins we have yet to uncover.

As noted by mission scientists, the Ultima Thule data transmission continues, though all of the data from the flyby won’t be on the ground until late summer 2020.

The New Horizons spacecraft is 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 33,000 miles (53,000 kilometers) per hour.

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New Horizons