New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 3540 kilometres of it and providing a better look at the surface.

It was the first exploration of such a primitive - and distant - planetary object in human history.

The New Horizons team combined a low-resolution color image of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, with sharper black-and-white imagery to produce the composite view at right.

"Our solar system is four billion years old... so its initial conditions have been kind of washed out", Kalirai explains.

Though Ultima Thule formed a long time ago, it remains pristine, seemingly unmarked by craters.

Alan Stern, principal investigator on the mission and associate vice president of the Space and Engineering Division of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, called the flyby an historic achievement. The team has dubbed the larger sphere, which is 12 miles across, "Ultima" and the smaller sphere, which is 9 miles across, "Thule".

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'I don't think we have stressed enough, so I really want to say, what this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented. "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it".

End to end, the world measures 19 miles (about 31 kilometers) in length.

Early analysis from New Horizons' camera suggests that Ultima Thule, based in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, is the result of two bodies that are now fused together.

The object has two lobes, with the larger one now taking the name Ultima and the smaller becoming Thule. Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined.

Despite the slender connection point, the two lobes are "soundly bound" together, according to Moore.

"If you have a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not bother to fill out the insurance forms", he joked. This created a snowman-shaped, two-lobed binary object. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time.

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Because these images were taken with the sun directly behind the spacecraft, there are no shadows to highlight the topography.

Color images from New Horizons revealed that Ultima Thule, like other Kuiper Belt objects, has a dark reddish hue, although it is thought to be primarily made of ice.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where New Horizons is operated, were up late, working to transform those bits of data into the first high-resolution image of a Kuiper belt object.

While most of us were popping the corks on bottles of champagne, NASA engineers were holding their breath as they watched the calendar flip to 2019 on the East Coast.

Scientists had suspected that Ultima Thule would not be perfectly round since the summer of 2017, when a global network of observers found the rock passing in front of a distant star.

With such a bland designation, astronomers came up with a very interesting name for this tiny object: "Ultima Thule", a Latin metaphor for a place that is beyond the borders of the known world. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets.

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This means we're truly seeing one of the first planetesimals, or objects, that went on to form planets.

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