Ultima Thule looks like a snowman

05 January, 2019, 06:45 | Author: Dwayne Harmon
  • Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

From then on, the mission team was of the mind that Ultima Thule was actually a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an "extreme prolate spheroid") or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching (a close or contact binary).

"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history-4 billion miles from the Sun", said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

The object has two lobes, with the larger one now taking the name Ultima and the smaller becoming Thule.

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.

Ultima's current rotation rate, estimated at about 15 hours for a complete turn, isn't fast enough to fling the two balls apart, Moore said.

Team members and guest at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, gathered to celebrate both the new year and the fly-by of New Horizons, which launched in 2006.

"We think what we are looking at is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft", Moore says, "and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system".

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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.

The snowman picture was taken a half-hour before the spacecraft's closest approach early Tuesday, from a distance of about 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers).

Before that flyby, the only image scientists had was a blurry one showing Ultima Thule's oblong shape, resembling something like a bowling pin or a peanut. The image on the left is an enhanced color image, the center image is a higher resolution image of the object and the right image shows the color overlaid onto the higher resolution image. (Kind of romantic, really.) In a clip shared on Twitter from NASA TV, Ultima Thule-which stretches about 20 miles-looks a bit like a half-melted snowman, although that's admittedly a crude description, as NASA scientists are still analyzing data to determine its properties. Together they form Ultima Thule, a frozen world that is almost 4.5 billion miles from Earth, more distant than Pluto. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".

"That image is so 2018", said Stern.

"We have far less than 1 per cent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons, already down on the ground". Scientists say no impact craters could be seen in the latest photos.

He added: "It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science".

However, this is just the start, and scientists have promised more details soon. For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.

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