Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Speaking of Science: A glimpse beyond the borders of the known world

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Nearly 4 billion miles from Earth, where the sun looks like just another star, and space is scattered with frozen fragments left over from the birth of distant planets, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft just caught a glimpse of the unknown.

Left: A composite image of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule (indicated by yellow crosshairs) produced from dozens of exposures taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. Right: A magnified view of the region in the yellow box, produced by subtracting the background of stars from the image. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

These images, captured by New Horizons's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, show a small, peanut-shaped inhabitant of the Kuiper Belt known as Ultima Thule.

New Horizons is scheduled for a close encounter with the far-flung space rock just after midnight on New Year's Day, 2019.

The moniker "Utima Thule," which was bestowed by NASA after a naming contest earlier this year, comes from an ancient expression for the distant north.


But in literature, the term has a metaphorical meaning, summoning up a place beyond the borders of the known world, as the Roman writer Virgil put it, where the sun rarely sets, and humankind's greatest ambitions are waiting to be grasped.

The idea persisted, captivating writers across continents and throughout the centuries. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dedicated an entire book of poetry to the subject, writing of a "land of dreams ... of fiction and of truth, the Lost Atlantis of our youth."

"A wild weird clime that lieth, sublime," Edgar Allan Poe described it, "out of space . . . out of time!"

For now, the real life Ultima Thule is almost as mysterious as the mythological version. It is so distant and small that none but the most powerful telescopes can see it, and even then they only get a vague sense of its faint, fuzzy form.

Scientists weren't sure about its size or shape until they spotted it passing in front of another star last summer; by measuring the object's shadow, they determined it is likely composed of two bodies roughly the size of Manhattan orbiting one another. Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission's principal investigator, wrote that Ultima Thule is probably a "primodial relic" of the planet forming processes that produced the Kuiper Belt's bigger bodies, like Pluto, Sedna and Eris.


New Horizons's Jan. 1, 2019 flyby will take it within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, making it the most distant body ever explored by humans. During that encounter, the spacecraft's instruments will measure the object's mass and attempt to discern its composition.

Then, scientists hope, Ultima Thule will no longer be a mystery. New Horizons will have expanded the borders of the known world.

-- Sarah

Scientists discovered a coral reef — almost as long as Delaware — hidden off the coast of Charleston
The researchers are trying to alert the Trump administration to off-shore areas that should be shielded from drilling.
When the ancient taboo of speaking ill of the dead goes online
Many commenters reflected kindly on John McCain after his death. But not all of the Internet.
Researchers replicate just 13 of 21 social science experiments published in top journals
A study suggests scientists need to up their game on experimental design and statistical analysis.
'Survival of the laziest': Finally, there's a scientific reason to not get off the couch
It is unclear whether the laziness study in mollusks also applies to other animals or humans — or gives you further justification to never know what a burpee is.
Beluga whales and narwhals go through menopause, too
Scientists know of only five species that go through menopause. Four of them are whales.
Why liars lie: What science tells us about deception
Lying is in the news after testimony from President Trump's longtime lawyer.
Russian trolls and Twitter bots exploit vaccine controversy
Public health experts trying to fight the spread of misinformation on vaccines are up against Russian trolls and Twitter bots.
Firefly twinkles are a sweet reminder that they taste like trash, study says
"Bats may have invented fireflies," conclude the authors of a new study.
Mom was a Neanderthal. Dad was something else entirely. Meet the strangest hybrid in human history.
This fossil child is the first direct evidence of prehistoric hanky panky among early humans, scientists say.
Recommended for you
Get the Energy and Environment newsletter
The latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday.
Sign Up  »
©2018 The Washington Post  |  1301 K St NW, Washington DC 20071