Science

Ultima Thule Looks Like a Snowman in First New Horizons Images

Ultima Thule Looks Like a Snowman in First New Horizons Images”

A NASA spacecraft at a distance of 4 billion miles from Earth capitulated its elemental close-up pictures of the farthest celestial object ever traversed representing what seems to look like a reddish snowman. Together they form Ultima Thule, a frozen world that is almost 4.5 billion miles from Earth, more distant than Pluto.

Planetary scientists have now nicknamed the two lobes, giving the name Ultima to the larger one and Thule to the smaller one.

Those two balls probably coalesced from primordial icy material in a cold zone known as the Kuiper Belt, perhaps millions or even hundreds of thousands of years after the solar system's birth more than 4.5 billion years ago, said Jeff Moore, a New Horizons team member from NASA's Ames Research Center. Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation. By contrast, he suggested, scientists did not know for sure whether other two-lobe bodies - most notably the rubber ducky-like Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - were two objects that came together or one larger body that had eroded into its current shape.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote.

"This flyby is a historic achievement", Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator said. Ultima and Thule then engaged in a slow, romantic waltz, circling each other until, at long last, contact was made.

"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 added.

In the coming days, weeks and months, NASA scientists will continue to receive new data from New Horizons, revealing Ultima Thule in greater detail.

Scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges.

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The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Mr Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists.

Ultima orbits the Sun in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt.

If the craft holds up, and the support mission back on Earth gets funding for a "hyperextended mission", New Horizons could be sampling the interstellar medium by the time today's newborns are finishing high school.

It consists of two nearly spherical lobes, one with about three times the volume of the other.

New Horizons was launched in 2006 on a mission to fly by Pluto.

The shape of Ultima Thule had been the subject of speculation for years leading up to the flyby.

This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object. More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered at 8 p.m. for a look.

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