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Ultima Thule NASA
An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object better known by its nickname, Ultima Thule. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

On New Year’s Day 2019, scientists got the first glimpse ever into a small Kuiper Belt object, thanks to the probe New Horizons. Joshua Emery, Lawrence A. Taylor Professor of Planetary Science at UT and NASA researcher, explains how this object, called Ultima Thule, could help explain the origins of our planet.



ANDREA SCHNEIBEL: Welcome to Science Minute, a research audiocast by the University of Tennessee. I’m Andrea Schneibel.

On New Year’s Day 2019, the world woke up to some very exciting news: New Horizons, the NASA’s interplanetary probe that visited Pluto in 2015, had sent photos of its encounter with the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

JOSHUA EMERY: New Horizons’ science team calls the object Ultima Thule.

SCHNEIBEL: That is Joshua Emery, Lawrence A. Taylor Professor of Planetary Science in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee.

EMERY: It was really exciting to get these first images of a small Kuiper Belt object ever.

SCHNEIBEL: Emery has taken part in several NASA projects, including New Horizons. He has a particular interest in determining the composition and the conditions under which planetary bodies are formed.

EMERY: This snowman-shaped object with its two lobes—and it’s made of ice, too, so maybe it is a snowman—provides our first look at a small Kuiper Belt object. These small objects retain their composition, and the material that they are made of is a direct window into the conditions four and a half billion years ago when the solar system formed.

SCHNEIBEL: Thanks for listening to Science Minute! For the University of Tennessee, I’m Andrea Schneibel.

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