First results from New Horizons’ time in the Kuiper Belt

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Image of the Kuiper Belt Object, showing its two distinct lobes.

Enlarge / When Ultima met Thule. A view of the two-lobed body, showing the bright neck and the large Maryland crater. (credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University APL/Southwest Research Institute.)

For many at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, January 1 this year didn’t mean a New Year’s celebration. Instead, it meant the first arrival of data from New Horizons’ visit to a small Kuiper Belt object. But, like its earlier flyby of Pluto, the probe was instructed to grab all the data it could and deal with getting it back to Earth later. The full set of everything New Horizons captured won’t be available for more than a year yet. But with 10 percent of the total cache in hand, researchers decided they had enough to do the first analysis of 2014 MU69.

2014 MU69 is thought to preserve material as it condensed in the earliest days of the Solar System’s formation. And everything in the New Horizons’ data suggests that this is exactly what it has done. With the exception of one big crater temporarily named “Maryland” and the gentle collision that created its two-lobed structure, the object appears to have been largely untouched by more than 4 billion years of the Solar System’s existence.

The dawn of time

The Kuiper belt is a sparse donut of small bodies near the outer edges of the Solar System. The bodies there are formed primarily of icy materials, most of which would otherwise remain gases in the warm, inner regions of the Solar System. Some of them, like Pluto, are large enough and/or have a complex collision history, which can ensure that they undergo geological changes that alter the materials that were present at their formation.

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