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Images of a small world beyond Pluto

Posted at 5:42 PM, Apr 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-03 20:42:46-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — It's the farthest destination in the history of human exploration.

“If you measure things by size of the earth's orbit call that one, Neptune is about 30, Pluto is like 33, Ultima Thule is 44, and the Kuiper belt starts petering off at about 50,” said National Optical Astronomy Observatory Astronomer Tod Lauer.

Lauer works out of NOAO headquarters in Tucson. He helped process images helping point the way for this astronomically long journey. He says the New Horizons spacecraft has been moving 14 kilometers a second for 13 years.

“Which is kind of like Tucson to Phoenix in 10 seconds. You can get out to the moon in like 8 hours. So we are really hauling.”

It zipped passed Pluto in 2015.

“Going past it it's hard to beat, we got tremendous detail, we could see mountain ranges, we could see the sea of frozen nitrogen, we could see glaciers of nitrogen.”

Then sights were set on a new world to explore. It zoomed by “Ultima Thule” on the first of this year.

“It means far away land, remote land, which is a very literal description.”

Pictures are still being sent back.

“We sort of crammed all our pockets on the spacecraft with data, then you go past it, play it back over months to get it all back.”

Ultima Thule is only about the size of the Tucson metro area. It's made up of two parts that somehow came together gently and without a huge impact. Scientists say they've never seen anything like it.

“I think the coolest thing about this is there are surprises.”

New Horizons is still flying out into space hopefully finding more surprises along the way.

“We still got lots of gas in the tank, we need a destination, so if you have an object out their along our way don't be shy about letting us know,” said Lauer.