SCIENCE

NASA New Horizons Spacecraft Data Shows Distant Object Covered In ‘Unidentified Organic Molecules’

Feb 13, 2020, 12:28 PM | Updated: 12:29 pm
NASA New Horizons...
More than a year after the NASA New Horizons mission closely flew by a small, distant Kuiper Belt Object, researchers have been able to sift through the data and learn intriguing new details about this fossil from the formation of the solar system. Located four billion miles beyond Pluto, Arrokoth is the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko)
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko)

(CNN) — More than a year after the NASA New Horizons mission closely flew by a small, distant Kuiper Belt Object, researchers have been able to sift through the data and learn intriguing new details about this fossil from the formation of the solar system. Located four billion miles beyond Pluto, Arrokoth is the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Previous studies about Arrokoth were based on a small amount of data sent back by the spacecraft, but the new details were provided by more than ten times as much data. The data enabled researchers to get a more complete picture of the object and determine more about its origin, formation, geology, composition, color and temperature.

And one of the most intriguing discoveries about Arrokoth is that it’s covered in methanol ice and unidentified complex organic molecules, according to the researchers.

If the name sounds unfamiliar, it’s because the object was renamed in November. Previously, it was known as Ultima Thule, which became controversial after the name was linked to Nazism. Arrokoth is a Native American term that means “sky” in the Powhatan and Algonquian language, according to NASA.

New findings about Arrokoth were presented Thursday at a press conference during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Three studies were also published in the journal Science.

“Arrokoth is unlike other small bodies visited by spacecraft,” the researchers said in one of the studies.

Studying Arrokoth can shed light on how the building blocks of planets, called planetesimals, formed in our solar system. Arrokoth is largely unchanged after billions of years and acts as a primordial time capsule. The Kuiper Belt, a region of our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune, is home to these old, cold objects, as well as comets, asteroids and other icy bodies. It’s known as the third zone of the solar system.

In one study, researchers were able to use data from New Horizons to simulate the formation of the object, which resembles a peanut or a snowman, depending on how you look at it. It’s made of two lobes that gently came together after forming independently.

And while the two lobes have been referred to as pancakes because they appeared flat in some of the first returned images, another new study suggests that they are actually much larger in volume.

Arrokoth’s smooth surface is another indicator that the object is largely unchanged even after billions of years. It has a light scattering of small craters, likely caused by small, rapid collisions with other objects. The largest and most well-understood crater, dubbed Maryland, is 4.3 miles across. The others are much smaller. Arrokoth itself is about the size of Seattle, the researchers said.

“Multiple processes, including impacts, have reworked the surfaces of both lobes after their formation, producing the fissures and small dark hills,” the researchers wrote in one of the studies.

The third study took a closer look at Arrokoth’s unique appearance. It’s incredibly cold and the surface is covered in methanol ice. The object’s signature red color is likely due to organic molecules also detected on the surface, although their exact composition remains unidentified. It’s known as “ultrared matter,” a hallmark of Kuiper Belt Objects because it’s only thermodynamically stable in this icy region far from the sun.

Methanol could be on the surface of Arrokoth as a result of several possibilities, including a mixture of water and methane ice that was exposed to radiation via the sun’s cosmic rays. Water itself has not been detected on the surface of the object.

The researchers believe Arrokoth is about four billion years old. And all three studies provide evidence that the object was formed in a collapsing particle cloud in the local solar nebula — the cloud of gas and dust from which our sun and planets formed. Its uniform color, smooth surface and how the lobes came together help piece together a picture of how the planetesimal came to be.

As a cloud of particles collapsed, the individual particles condensed to form the two lobes that eventually came together. The gentle bonding of the two lobes happened at about 7 miles per hour, said William McKinnon, New Horizons co-investigator.

This helps solve a debate over how planetesimals formed, both in the Kuiper Belt and across our solar system, said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons. He calls this discovery a “watershed moment.” The other prevailing theory was called hierarchical accretion, where objects from different areas of the solar nebula would collide to form an object.

“We now know as a result of Arrokoth how those first stages of planetesimals formed,” Stern said.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Science

Space Dynamics Laboratory CAPSTONE CubeSat...
Cary Schwanitz

Space radio built at USU is now orbiting the Moon

A deep space radio name Iris and built by the Space Dynamics Labaratory at Utah State University has been in lunar orbit since November 13.
2 days ago
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft atop is seen as Space X and NASA....
Ashley Strickland and Jackie Wattles, CNN

SpaceX launches tomato seeds, other supplies to International Space Station

SpaceX is carrying a fresh haul of supplies to the International Space Station this weekend after bad weather at the launch site forced the company to wave off its first attempt.
6 days ago
On the sixth day of the Artemis I mission, Orion's optical navigation camera captured black-and-whi...
Amir Vera, CNN

NASA’s Orion spacecraft snaps a selfie on its journey beyond the far side of the moon

NASA released a selfie taken by the Orion capsule and close-up photos of the moon's crater-marked landscape as the spacecraft continues on the Artemis 1 mission.
7 days ago
The European Space Agency presents 17 new astronaut candidates on Wednesday in Paris. (Eric Lalmand...
Katie Hunt, CNN

European Space Agency announces first ‘parastronaut’

For the first time in 13 years, the European Space Agency has announced a new class of trainee astronauts, including the world's first "parastronaut."
9 days ago
NASA's Orion spacecraft approaches its closest flyby of the moon during NASA's Artemis I mission. (...
Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

NASA’s Orion spacecraft makes its closest approach to the moon as part of Artemis mission

NASA's Orion capsule passed about 80 miles above the lunar surface early Monday, a monumental achievement in the mission designed to test the space agency's ability to return astronauts to the moon.
11 days ago
Baby Revie Moala in pajamas and a beanie....
Ashley Moser

Idaho family says Primary Children’s Hospital nurse was crucial in getting baby to breathe

For weeks the Moala's, who live in Rigby, Idaho, fought for doctors to run tests on baby Revie. Finally she was referred to Primary Children’s Hospital, where Revie was diagnosed with blindness in her right eye.
13 days ago

Sponsored Articles

house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
NASA New Horizons Spacecraft Data Shows Distant Object Covered In ‘Unidentified Organic Molecules’