NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like snowman

Clark Diaz
January 5, 2019

It likely began as two separate objects that joined together over time.

The scientists running NASA's New Horizons mission showed off the first detailed images Wednesday of an object 4 billion miles away in space.

The first image (shown at top), was taken by the spacecraft's Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at 05:01 UTC (01:01 EDT) on January 1st, 2019.

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand.

Meanwhile, it must be said that New Horizons, indeed, is living up to its name.

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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. Based on the preliminary data, scientists now believe Ultima Thule is a contact binary - two pieces of space rock that slowly came together over time. The ratio of the larger lobe to the smaller is estimated to be about 3-to-1.

Engineers at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland cheered when the spacecraft's first signals came through the National Aeronautic and Space Agency's Deep Space Network at 10:28 am EST (1528 GMT). Southwest Research Institute leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima", which measures 19 km (12 mi) in diameter, and the smaller sphere "Thule" (14 km; 9 mi).

In March, NASA and the New Horizons team announced their decision to use Ultima Thule as a nickname for the second stop on their solar system tour, which is officially known as 2014 MU69, a formula that designates when it was discovered. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

"Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form, both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy", he said.

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In addition to providing a clearer image of the object, the new data sent back to Earth from New Horizons has revealed significant information pointing to its origins and appearance.

Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule.

"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 awesome", Stern said.

These images, though, are not of that absolute closest approach.

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