Images of Ultima Thule offer scientists clues about solar system

San Antonio research team leading science team on space mission

SAN ANTONIO – Wednesday was a big day in space news that has a direct link to San Antonio.

The public saw the first images of the farthest object out in space to be visited by a spacecraft. The object is named Ultima Thule, which means beyond the known world.

The Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, is leading the science team on the NASA New Horizons mission.

A member of the SwRI team, who was in Maryland for the big announcement, said the new images are giving scientists major clues about how the solar system was formed.

“It was beyond the known world until we went to visit it,” said Joel Parker, co-investigator for NASA New Horizons, of Ultima Thule.

The object was discovered in 2014 in the Kuiper Belt during the still ongoing New Horizons mission.

“You can think of the Kuiper Belt as an asteroid belt out beyond the orbit of Neptune. It’s beyond the edge of what most people think of as the solar system,” Parker said.

Parker said being able to get photos of Ultima Thule is an incredible feat. The spacecraft that took the photos is traveling at 30,000 miles per hour. He said it’s like speeding down a highway and trying to take a picture of a tree with your phone.

Ultima Thule is about 20 miles long. Each object in it is about 12 miles and 9 miles across. 

The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio will now study the information gathered about Ultima Thule to look for clues about how the solar system was formed.

“What were the building blocks of the planets? What were the chemicals -- the different combinations of chemicals -- out there at that time? It all pulls into the big question of ‘How did we get here?’ How did the solar system form? (It’s) all the cool, gee whiz stuff everyone wants to know,” Parker said.

Parker said it takes six hours to communicate with the spacecraft and more than six hours for it to respond. It will take 20 months to get all of the images of Ultima Thule and years more to analyze the data.

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