Most distant celestial object explored looks like snowman

Ultima Thule

A bowling pin? A peanut? A celestial propellor

"It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control in Laurel.

Names matter, even when they're temporary nicknames for objects 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) away from Earth. Behold, 2014 MU69, the Cosmic Snowman!

That means that Ultima Thule is likely an object that dates back to the formation of the solar system, as scientists suspects prior to the flyby.

The 140-meter-resolution image, taken 28,000 kilometers from MU69 half an hour before the spacecraft's closest approach, reveals two bumpy, reddish spheres, with one three times the volume of the other.

"If you have a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not bother to fill out the insurance forms", he joked.

The two objects came together at an "extremely slow speed", according to mission geology manager Jeff Moore.


In addition to the clip, NASA also shared an artist's rendering, along with a theory about how Ultima Thule could have formed over time, beginning with a rotating cloud of icy bodies. A distant object now actually feels real to everyone here on Earth. "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". And different models produce different outcomes.

The color photo was then combined with the image taken by the LORRI camera (which has almost five times the spatial resolution of the MVIC) to produce a detailed image that shows the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes.

Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is about 20 miles long by 10 miles wide.

As well as being the most distant object reached, Ultima Thule may be the oldest celestial object to be studied by a spacecraft. The improved resolution also draws attention to the object's "neck", where the two lobes are connected. The larger lobe is the "bottom" sphere and the smaller lobe is the "upper" sphere. The mission team is now calling the larger one "Ultima" and the smaller one "Thule".

Scientists think New Horizons has enough fuel to visit one more object in the Kuiper belt within the next decade.

Less than 1 percent of all the data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby has been downlinked to Earth.


As Helene Winters, New Horizons' Project Manager, indicated, it won't stop there.

The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 km (85,000 mi) at 04:08 am UTC on January 1st, 2019.

"We were chasing it in the dark at 3,200 miles an hour, and all that had to happen just right", Stern stressed.

There is some dispute among scientists, though, about whether Ultima Thule is the first contact binary seen. Stern. "We're not saying there aren't craters". He added: "We've never seen anything like this before".

An earlier image of the spinning ball of dust and ice, captured by the spacecraft from about 500,000 kilometres out, was so fuzzy and grainy Dr Stern told those gathered at the press conference it was "OK to laugh". But it's a bummer that the New Horizons team is doubling down on the name, despite already knowing about its nefarious second meaning.


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