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Chasing Shadows to Measure the Size of Ultima Thule in Advance of New Horizons

22 Jan 2019, 21:31 UTC
Chasing Shadows to Measure the Size of Ultima Thule in Advance of New Horizons
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In 2014 the New Horizons science team discovered an object beyond Pluto that the New Horizons spacecraft could also visit after the Pluto flyby. The Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union gave this object the provisional designation of 2014 MU69. The New Horizons team later nicknamed it “Ultima Thule.” It was discovered within the dense background star field of the Milky Way Galaxy and was very faint, making it difficult to see even in images from the largest ground-based telescopes. In fact, it was discovered not with a ground-based telescope, but with the Hubble Space Telescope.
We could measure how bright the object appeared in the Hubble images and, from measurements of its positions over time—relative to background stars—we could determine its orbit. An orbit is a set of six numbers which define the shape and orientation of the elliptical orbit that the object follows as it goes around the Sun. From those six numbers astronomers could determine an ephemeris, which allows us to calculate where the object would be in the sky at any time and also its distance from the Sun and Earth at that time. The orbit and resulting ephemeris allowed scientists to determine that ...

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