NASA’s New Year’s flyby of MU69 revealed images of a space “snowman” that could be the secret to uncovering the secrets of how the solar system began.
On Jan. 1, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by the Ultima Thule and the data it gathered could be the key to understanding how the distant object and similar things came to be. Previously, scientists thought that they would find the 35-kilometer space “snowman” they were expecting they saw from a distance after New Horizons reached the far fringes of the solar system. However, they turned out to look more like two lumpy pancakes stuck together.
While scientists still have yet to understand why the two lobes of the MU69’s were not spheres, their flat shape could reveal more. The MU69 or Ultima Thule may have formed at first as two small separate objects. Scientists think that the lobes of the Ultima Thule are “primordial planetary building blocks called planetesimals.”
Professor Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said that they have never encountered a pristine binary as such anywhere in the Solar System. Researchers said that current data about the object will provide them more insight into how the solar system formed around 4.5 billion years ago.
Dr. Jeff Moore, who is affiliated to NASA’s Ames Research Center, said that the Ultima is like a “time machine” that’s taking us back to the very beginning of the solar system.” It is like a “Frankenstein” object, Dr. Moore noted. Scientists believe that the object formed as a result of a collapse of a swarm of smaller particles circling the Sun. It is possible that the Ultima’s lumpy side could have come from the objects.
Likewise, the new information could support the streaming instability, which is a more modern theory of planetary formation. According to scientists, boulder-sized “pebbles” formed through static electricity would stick together because of how the early solar system’s primordial disk churned. The streaming pebbles eventually turned into planetesimals due to gravitational collapse. The planetesimals formed the orbiting pair of objects that line up similar to the Ultima Thule. William McKinnon, a New Horizons team member and planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, said that the new image comes straight from the streaming instability model.