Science

First detailed NASA images of Ultima Thule reveal 'snowman' shape

Today, that smudge begins to clear.

Ultima Thule, an icy world 6.5 billion kilometres from the sun, looks like a big snowman.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: "It is only really the size of something like Washington, DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt". "This flyby is a historic achievement". Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

In the coming days and weeks, we'll see much closer views of Ultima Thule. For example, comets that visit Earth from the Kuiper belt have had a peanutlike profile similar to MU69, prompting debate about whether they were sculpted by the sun's heat or looked that way from the start. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima".

Ultima refers to the larger lobe, which is three times the size of Thule, the smaller lobe.

The latest images transmitted by the New Horizons probe, as it continues the 20-month process of sending Earthwards all that lovely science data collected during its flyby, show Ultima Thule is actually a "contact binary" consisting of two connected spheres. They liken it to two cars getting into a fender bender.

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings.

The new images, taken during the New Year's flyby, are the first to confirm that Ultima Thule's teeny waistline is more a juncture than an hourglass. As more data comes in, scientists will have a better handle on what's causing it. On Pluto, the culprit was tholins - hydrocarbon molecules formed from the interaction between sunlight and methane.

Ultima Thule, a name that was nominated by 40 people, won the public poll.

Stern noted that the team has received less than 1 percent of all the data stored aboard New Horizons. "That's where you want to go if you want to uncover the most useful scientific clues for how we came to be in this solar system". We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time.

Scientists are keen to study Ultima Thule as it lives in a region that has been relatively untouched since the formation of the solar system, which in turn helps them better understand planetary formation.

The insane thing is, Ultima Thule might not be all that special in the grand scheme of things. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand. Stern said during today's press conference that all systems are still green, and there's enough power to travel many more millions of miles.



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