What Happens When You Go Beyond the Final Frontier?

By Corey S. Powell | January 31, 2019 4:55 pm
The best-yet view of MU69 (aka Ultima Thule) from New Horizons. Even sharper views are still sitting in data storage aboard the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The best-yet view of MU69 (aka Ultima Thule) from New Horizons, showing craters and intriguing hints of layering. The larger lobe appears to have a thick-pancake shape. Even sharper views are still stored in the solid-state memory aboard the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

It was a New Year’s Eve like no other. First of all, the big celebration started a half hour after midnight. Children were waving mini-flags, surrounded by throngs of giddy planetary scientists. And four billion miles away, one billion miles past Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft was flying past an enigmatic object called 2014 MU69–better known by its nickname, Ultima Thule.

When radio signals from New Horizons finally reached Earth the next morning, they revealed that the mission was a smashing success. The first images of MU69 showed that it is a double-lobed object, apparently created from the delicate joining of two primitive planetary building blocks, or planetessimals. It was everything the mission scientists had hoped for. The only thing that felt off about the triumphant event was the object’s name: not only because some people objected to the Nazi mythology attached to Ultima Thule, but because of the name’s literal meaning of “beyond the known world.”

The moment that New Horizons reported back, MU69 became part of the known world. The probe had lived up to its name, pushing back the horizon of human understanding, so that it can be pushed back farther, again and again, in the future. There is no final frontier anywhere in sight, and that is what truly made the New Year’s encounter so exciting.

Since January 1, data have been flowing in from New Horizons at a slow trickle. The data rate from its current location in the far-outer solar system is no more than 2,000 bits per second under optimal conditions, according to mission operations manager Alice Bowman. The full download will take 20 months. Still, we already have enough in hand to begin the knowing process.

The early, medium-resolution released just after the encounter showed that the larger lobe of MU69 is about three times the size of the smaller one. Both have similar reddish colors, similar to that of the north polar cap on Pluto’s moon Charon. The most likely interpretation is that MU69 is covered in frozen methane and other organic ices that havy e been chemically altered by billions of years of radiation into a coating of tholins–a catch-all term given to a complex brew of organic solids.

All of those initial discoveries fit in with our understanding of the outer solar solar system as a place that is rich in water and carbon compounds. To be clear, objects like MU69 were not directly connected to the formation of the inner planets, so we cannot credit them with making Earth the habitable world that it is today. MU69 is much more directly connected with the formation of the giant outer planets; they in turn were responsible for doing much of the chemical stirring in the early days when the Sun and its planets were beginning to take shape.

Part of what makes MU69 so fascinating is precisely the fact that it did not participate fully in the planet-building process. Instead it is a survivor, a relic that formed in place and largely stayed in place even as Neptune and Uranus migrated around and scattered wide swaths of the outer solar system, erasing parts of its history. MU69 is classified as a cold classical Kuiper Belt Object–cold in the dynamical sense, meaning that it was never much disturbed and remains in its original, fairly circular orbit around the distant Sun.

Think of MU69 as an entry in a parent’s baby journal, describing what the solar system was like right at the time of its birth. Everything in the inner solar system has been battered and cooked during the intervening eons. Some comets hail from the same cold, primitive region as MU69, but we have seen them only after they have approached the Sun and sprouted tails–another form of destructive cooking. MU69 is one of a kind (for now), the only journal entry in which we can still read all of the words.

The rotation of MU69, seen as New Horizons closed in. Every aspect of this little snowman contains information about conditions in the early solar system. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

The rotation of MU69, seen as New Horizons closed in. Every aspect of this little snowman contains information about conditions in the early solar system. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

One of the great puzzles about planetary formation is how the clouds of gas and dust circling a newborn star give rise to the planetessimals that then accumulate into protoplanets, and eventually into the final planets themselves. Obviously the dust grains stick together, accumulate, build up. But how that works, exactly, is understood only in the most hand-wavy way.

The beginnings of some answers are starting to come into focus as more information arrives from New Horizons. The latest image (the one at the top of this post) is far more detailed than the one released the day after the flyby. At first, mission leader Alan Stern and the rest of the team was uncertain how to interpret MU69’s vaguely defined bulges and depressions. In the new view, it’s absolutely clear that some of the topography on the object is due to impact cratering. Those craters provide an indirect record of the smaller objects still circling around in the Kuiper Belt, remnants from the enigmatic stage between bits of dust and planetessimals the size of MU69, which is about 30 kilometers long.

Also evident in the new image are signs of layering, suggestive of the way various smaller objects came together to form the two lobes before they in turn came together. The prevailing theory is that the lobes formed as separate objects in close proximity, with scattered debris and mini-moons around them. Those surrounding objects helped siphon off angular momentum, allowing the two to spiral together until they made contact and continuing to drag on them until the combined object reached its current rotation rate of 15 hours (much slower than they would have been moving at the moment of contact).

If all of this seems like the scientists are obsessing over minuscule details, that is entirely correct. Detail is exactly what’s missing from the current theories of planetary formation. Every bump and lump on MU69 will fill in some of the gaps in that theory. The best images, yet to arrive, will be four times sharper. There will be views taken from the side, showing deep shadows that clarify the exact shape of MU69. There will also be spectroscopic data that will reveal much about the surface composition, showing how the parts of MU69 came together and how they swept up the small bits of solar system material around them.

As Marc Buie, a co-investigator on the New Horizons team, told me at the end of a big science briefing following the flyby, “This is like the Holy Grail for understanding where we’ve come from. It’s going to revolutionize our view of how this whole process works.”

Despite invoking the Holy Grail (the scientist’s go-to metaphor for a final, clinching piece of evidence), Buie and the rest of the team do not see MU69 as anything like an endpoint. Stern is gearing up for another New Horizons encounter that will happen…in March. This one will not be a close visit as with MU69, but rather a long-distance reconnaissance of a Kuiper Belt Object called 2014 PN70. Then next year the team may propose to NASA a plan to do a proper, up-close flyby of another body in the Kuiper Belt, assuming they can find a suitable target.

And then? New Horizons will keep scouting out the Kuiper Belt and the interstellar medium, following in the footsteps of Voyagers 1 and 2. We don’t know yet what will come after that. A Pluto orbiter? A multi-part mission to assess more of the Kuiper Belt? There are many ideas and many options on the table. Budget and scientific priorities will determine which ones come to fruition. All we know for sure is that Ultima Thule is not the endpoint.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    what Happens When You Go Beyond the Final Frontier?” You get a diversity phototech who does not know a negative from a print.


    It is primordial space junk. It is a couple of dusty rocks kissing. It is NASA hype. The idiots let a starship hyperbolic orbit right through our system without so much as a comment – until it was a dozen vowels too late.

    • SonOfTheIsles

      How much foil did it take to make your tin foil hat, you drug abusing, Bible bashing, alien spotting, petrol pumping half-wit!!!

      • OWilson

        How many off topic, childish ad hominems does it take for a troll to feel good about himself?


      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        … THIS IS A PRINT

        Passive ignorance is sad. Active stupidity is egregious.

        • Erik Bosma

          And ad hominems expose the loser of a debate.

    • Mike Richardson

      “Diversity?” Try to be a little more subtle with the dogwhistles, okay? 😏

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        The measure of diversity is proven incapability. If they could walk they would not need crutches. If University of California matriculation were based upon proven ability, it would be 70% Asian and 20% Jewish, Its outputs would rock the world. 22% of Nobel Laureates are Jewish – from a negligible world population and despite virulent anti-Semitism. You should be afraid.

        Look above. The mindless cannot ID a photographic negative.- and proudly so. That is diversity.

        • Mike Richardson

          Wow. I gave you the opportunity to walk back that comment, and you double down with racial stereotypes. And just why should I be scared? Whatever I have accomplished myself (or you, for that matter) is in no way diminished by anyone else, from any other ethnic group, race, gender, or what have you — though I don’t tend to generalize as you have done here.

          And Wilson, how would your friends and significant other, whom you describe as “people of color” like your approving of such prejudiced statements here? Shame, shame.

          Now here I thought the discussion was about the future of outer solar system exploration, not a discussion of image processing from the Ultima Thule flyby, and why hiring minorities is apparently bring down science, according to some. The future, and not the prejudices of the past, should be the topic here.

          • OWilson

            “The future, and not the prejudices of the past, should be the topic here”.

            So let’s just leave your obsession with my black partner out of this conversation, OK?


          • Mike Richardson

            “So let’s just leave your sick obsession with my black partner out of this conversation, OK?

            Race baiting by you White Deep Southern Democrats (Louisiana, isn’t it?) belongs in YOUR past, and has no place here! :) (See how easy, lazy and dangerous it can be to use cheap stereotypes?)”

            LOL! I just find it curious that someone who claims to be without racial prejudice so quickly upvoted someone whose argument against affirmative action was that apparently he believes some groups are intellectually superior to others. That’s your cheap stereotype, but it apparently did not bother you enough to not earn your approval. Sorry, Wilson, but that’s just inconsistent. And regardless of the past where I live (and unfortunately, the present for many — who now overwhelmingly vote Republican, by the way), many of us Southerners are trying to build a more inclusive and positive future.

            I think, regarding the processing of the image, which is also a diversion from the original topic, Uncle Al has appropriately been educated on the topic. Perhaps you should read the responses, yourself. And anyone with much knowledge of the subject knows that long-exposure shots of galaxies and distant objects are required to obtain sufficient light for any detail — basic astronomy. Using contrast in other images of solar system objects helps show detail and provide useful data which the human eye is simply inadequate to discern.

            As for the future of NASA’s deep space exploration, I’d like to see it better funded and organized, which will most likely need new leadership, as the agency currently seems to have little direction or long-term planning at the moment.

          • Erik Bosma

            I do believe Uncle Al’s comment was heavily skewed by the facts and not by stereotyping.

          • Mike Richardson

            His comments speak for themselves, and are indeed based on stereotypes. I hope you aren’t making excuses for him here, since his “facts” are often heavily skewed by his strong political, and apparently racial, biases.

          • OWilson

            What is “apparent” to a socialist government employee ain’t necessarily so, Mikey!

            Look in the mirror!


          • Mike Richardson

            “Look in the mirror!” said the least self-reflective and most ironic character in the thread. 😄

          • OWilson

            “apparently he believes some groups are intellectually superior to others.”

            Another of your “inferences”, Mikey?

            Along with your other “inferences” about my “duped wife”, “closet fascism”, “alcoholism”, “racism”, “mental incompetent”, and the long litany of your other nonsensical inferences?


            He disparaged “Affirmative Action”, as I do. Racism systematically intitutionalised, based on skin color, or sexual preference!

            I believe until government is color blind and treats every citizen equally, we will have no peace!

            Whether that be in your Deep South, California, South Afica, or Zimbabwe!

          • Mike Richardson

            “The OP disparaged “Affirmative Action”, as I do. Racism systematically institutionalised, based on skin color, or sexual preference!”

            Except he then went on to state that certain ethnic and religious groups perform better academically than others, a stereotype and overgeneralization that you embraced. Sorry, but your efforts at revisionism are weak at best. You and Al both exposed your prejudices here, but at least he had the sense to call it a day and not dig himself in even deeper after the second post.

            “Along with your other “inferences” about my “duped wife”, “closet fascism”, “alcoholism”, “racism”, “mental incompetent”, and the long litany of your other nonsensical inferences?” — Still playing the victim card, I see. That reply to 7eggert you made about the Golden Rule and karma? Here’s a review of some of your own “inferences” that apparently don’t reflect a true “do unto others” mindset:

            Childish nicknames, like “Pocahontas,” “Obanana,” “Dopey Joey”; calling other posters “trolls,” “fool,” “dupes,” etc.; referring to inner cities as “Democrat inner city plantations,” “ghetto plantations” and so on.

            Well, I guess you should be treated the way you treat others, right? Karma indeed. 😁

          • OWilson

            Not here, Mikey, that stuff belongs in the political trolling blogs like The Hill and the other blog on Discover that allows your stuff!

            Keep your stuff where it belongs!

            We did see the very best at work at the Super Bowl. Only complaint I had was that they didn’t give my all time favourite Gladys Knight the entire half time show!! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            So you only follow the Golden Rule when not trolling, then? Gotcha. Kinda ironic, since one of your favorite insults is to call others trolls.

            Although you have used many of the insults I listed in your frequent tangential political rants, even here on the Discover blogs. So your statement is another one of those that earns you a few Pinocchios for lack of honesty.

            And speaking of tangents, what does an overhyped sporting event have to do with the discussion of outer solar system exploration, the image processing of Ultima Thule or even the “diversity” diversion? Unless that’s just another passive aggressive trolling attempt, which fails on folks like me who don’t particularly care for televised sports. I find far more interest in topics such as the article above, dealing with expanding human knowledge of our universe.

          • OWilson

            Good for you Mikey!

            So do try to leave your “duped wife”, “closet fascist”, “mental incompetent” , “racist” allegations out of these science discussions, and we’ll all be better off!

            But sometimes, your “passive
            /agressive” side just can’t help itself :)

            Have a nice day!

          • Mike Richardson

            “But sometimes, as we have seen, your ‘passive/aggressive’ side just can’t help itself :)”

            Considering your previous comments, maybe you need to look up the definition of “passive-aggressive,” then “projection.” I’d also recommend reviewing the definition of “hypocrisy,” and then taking your own advice about looking in a mirror and contemplating how that relates to you, given your own behavior.

            If you can leave some of your own ad hominems and political generalizations out of these science discussions (to which you’ve added absolutely nothing relevant), perhaps I’ll then consider taking your advice. In the meantime, happy trolling! 😀

          • OWilson


            You couldn’t help yourself, could you Mikey :)

            I’ll leave you, as usual, with the last ad hominen! We are again, waaaay off topic at the bottom of your swamp.

            The adults, as usual, have all left the building. Me too.

            Don’t forget to turn out the lights! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            LOL! The truth hurts, apparently. Well, quit attacking people for things you do yourself, and you won’t be labeled a hypocrite. And, Ol’Wilson, if “the adults” are no longer present, that means your observation is self referential as well. I agree with you there. 😏

        • 7eggert

          The main reason to be afraid of minorities is fear of becoming a minority and being treated the way you treat them.

          • OWilson

            Karma is alive and well!

            The ancient philosophy of “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you”, is still good advice!

    • Tod_R_Lauer

      Hi, I am a member of the NH science team and was the one who processed the pictures that you linked to and that are in the article. What you call “negative” is a positive image. What you call a “print” is the image shown with an inverted gray-scale. The concept of negative in any case has nothing to do with anything important here. We are not using film and making prints.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        That is not a bright ring between the globes. It makes perfect sense for it to be a shadow. Look at the two images. Pockets and cracks and alcoves are dark not bright. Somebody screwed up – hardware, software, wetware. One is definitely a negative, the other a positive. NASA suffers periods when it is not especially good at things – whatever the gauges and dials say.

        Consider soft x-ray images cooking airplane passengers’ eyes and gonads, ostensibly looking for weapons and such. The “encoded” image is simply a low-res shadow negative. Reverse the negatives and you’ve got blurry nekkid people.

        Using Viton o-rings as dynamic seals re clevis-and-tang Space Scuttle solid boosters was madness. Not adding fiber to external hydrogen tank blown insulation was madness. Recovering deformed steel shells and “restoring” them – the total at more than fabrication costs – was madness. Your engineers work in fear. It degrades their outputs.

        • Tod_R_Lauer

          Wow!! You really want to argue with someone directly involved with processing this image!! The ring between the lobes is in direct sunlight based on the geometry of the spacecraft, sun angle, etc. If you look towards the bottom of the image, exactly where the sun angle is shallow, there’s a clear increase in darkening as the terminator is approached. This same “high phase” area is marked by several small pits or craters. Look at the shading and shadows in them. They would have to be domes if you inverted the gray-scale. And, hey! The black background around the image is really black!

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        None of the backgrounds show even a single star. They are black back fill, R:0,G:0,B:0.

        … This is a negative of the whole display.
        … This is a positive of the whole display. No stars, proper shadows.

        Don’t piss on my leg then tell me it’s rain.

        • Tod_R_Lauer

          This is a small portion of a huge scan, which indeed has dozens of stars in it (as well as cosmic rays.) The stars are trailed as this is a 1-D scanning CCD, which requires the spacecraft to rotate to build up the image, The scan rate is set to compensate for the object motion relative to the stars during the exposure. The background actually fairly noisy and is not identically zero. This is also not a color image, so no RGB triplets.

          • Darth Malicus

            huh that sounds like quite the process, I figured the photographs really needed to use extremely high shutter openings and a perfectly still space craft (relative to the motion of object being photographed) so now I am really in the dark lol however I’m inclined to believe uncle al is too.
            can I ask what a 1-d scanning CCD is? am I correct in assuming then that you are not relying on the photons from the sun anymore when capturing images?

          • Tod_R_Lauer

            No, we couldn’t see anything if the sun didn’t light up the object!

            NH has two cameras. LORRI is the highest-res, but is monochrome only and has a very narrow field. MVIC (which was used for the picture above) has a huge field with pretty good resolution and color. Rather than building a huge sensor, it is configured as a set of 1-D CCD, each getting a different color. To make a full picture you have to sweep the camera over the object (think of a push broom or squeegie). The sweeping is done by rolling the space craft, and carefully synchronizing the exposure with the motion. As such the whole picture actually takes a few minutes, even though the exposure in any one place may just be a fraction of a second.

          • Darth Malicus

            thats awesome, I was thinking it was somthing like a few hours to a few days of shutter opening to capture an image with conventional cameras. I DID google what a 1D ccd was and seen its essencially just a barcode scanner im sure its quite a bit more powerful though.
            P.S. thanks for the reply its pretty cool getting a chance to talk with someone from the team
            and sorry about my english as my specialty is in converting chemical energy into kinetic energy (Im a auto mechanic/engine tuner lol)

          • 7eggert

            Let me try to explain 1D: In a CCD, you’ve got a stack of lines, and you can read each line one by one while shifting down the other lines.

            NASA wants each line to be the same and to have high-quality color filters (I guess). Therefore and instead of having a random-quality color filter on each pixel, they’ll put the color filter on a part of the CCD, R,G,B and IR for example, and (ab)use one (or a few) line(s) of the CCD for having one monochromatic color.

            By rotating the probe like moving a barcode scanner, they get high-quality monochromatic scientifically-adequate images, but nor quite synchronized. Then they’ll match one red image with a green image several miliseconds apart and have a colored image for the public audience, too.

          • Corey S Powell

            Tod — I meant to thank you for your generosity and patience here…

        • forextor

          In your ‘negative’, the background is so bright… it looks like over exposed image… of course that makes sense since stars are everywhere right?…

        • TLongmire

          If you imagined the ultimate horizon was pure light and stars cast polarized shadows wouldn’t all our data be interchangeable? Wouldn’t it prove a simulation? The meteor is not in negative. LOOK

      • Erik Bosma

        When you ‘un-invert’ the photo back it is painfully obvious that the whitish ‘glow’ between the 2 lobes is plainly a shadow of one rock onto the other.

        • Tod_R_Lauer

          Painfully obvious? Dude! I’ve got the data as I came down from the Deep Space Network right in front of me. It’s painfully obvious that we know what’s white and what’s black. It should be to you as well. See the shading at the bottom of the image in this article? That’s the terminator going into the night side. You can also see the little pits there shaded as expected.

      • Erik Bosma

        Oh, and isn’t an inverted gray-scale image also known as a ‘negative’???

    • 7eggert

      It may look inverted, but it’s obvious to me that the dark areas in the NASA images are where the ice evaporated (and part of it set down in the shadows). Thus the shadow areas are brighter than the areas where the sun shines on.

      PS, see the background of the image: Unless they used 2.7 °C microwave images, it should be black.

      PS2, they would not put THAT on a tiny satellite. At least it would stop being tiny in that very moment, and start being a large, flat shape.

  • Mike Richardson

    NASA did have proposals for precursor interstellar probes, including a 1000 AU mission, a few years back. I haven’t heard anything new about this in some time, however. Further down the road, there are proposals such as the Breakthrough Starshot, a concept that would use lasers to propel microprobes to 15-20% of light speed, allowing a fast flyby (very fast!) of the Alpha Centauri system 20-30 years after launch.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

      Interstellar cold neutral medium has 20 – 50 hydrogen atoms/cm³. Take the flat projected cross-sectional area of the Breakthrough Starshot in cm², multiply by 4.13×10^18 cm (distance to Alpha Centauri) and then by 35. If you have a crappy square foot light sail,

      (929 cm²)(4.13×10^18 cm)(35 atoms/cm³) = 1.34×10^23 hydrogen atoms hit at a fat fraction of lightspeed. Avogadro’s number is 6.02×10^23. Nothing usable will arrive, and it won’t be in any hurry to get there – the wind having been in its face. NASA hype.

      • Victoria

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      • Corey S Powell

        Interesting point, but note that Breakthrough Starshot has nothing to do with NASA–it’s a private nonprofit venture.

  • Adam Zee

    How do i love to waste thee money,let me count the ways…

    • gimpi1

      Studying the outer solar system and what it can show us about how star systems form is a waste? OK….

      No, actually it’s not OK. We’re learning about how our planet and star system formed. We’re discovering what the outer reaches of that system are like. How is that wasteful?

  • Anna

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Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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