NASA’s New Horizons Shows Image of Snowman-Like Object

Yolanda Curtis
January 3, 2019

The New Horizons spacecraft's picture of an icy object 4 billion miles from Earth became a lot clearer today, and took on a surprisingly familiar shape.

Kuiper Belt Objects, of which Pluto is the largest, are especially interesting because they are thought to retain some of the Solar System's original building material, left undisturbed after billions of years.

While you'd think something named "Ultima Thule" would be a challenger to Thanos for galactic superiority in Avengers 4: Endgame, or doing drag, the name fittingly means "beyond the borders of the known world". Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other and stuck together.

Nasa launched the New Horizons probe in 2006; it's about the size of a baby grand piano. This image was taken by the craft's Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which combines light from the infrared, red and blue channels.

In the early hours of January 1, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule.

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Data from the New Year's Day flyby will continue to arrive over the next weeks and months, with much higher resolution images yet to come.

Before the new picture, the only image scientists had showed a peanut-shaped blur.

Ultima Thule is one of hundreds of thousands of space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit.

Just over a day after NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Ultima Thule, scientists have revealed their preliminary findings of the distant object.

Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation.

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"It's a snowman", mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. The improved resolution also draws attention to the object's "neck", where the two lobes are connected. It is also a bilobate or compact binary object, meaning that it is composed of two separate objects that are now joined.

Ultima Thule in colour. Tholins are also behind the reddish color in a crater on the surface of Pluto's biggest moon, Charon, but scientists say the process behind its deposition on Ultima is likely to be different. New Horizons has been releasing blurry photos of the object and has detected some weirdness about it, as we've reported-there didn't seem to be any variation in the amount of light it reflected.

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really wonderful", Stern said.

They said it the image showed "the first contact binary ever explored by spacecraft". He added: "We've never seen anything like this before".

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