NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary

Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary. Credit NASA

"In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, today New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system".

Early observations of Ultima Thule taken by New Horizons suggested that the rock is rather elongated and shaped somewhat like a bowling pin. Now, the updated image reveals an object more akin to a snowman.

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

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all of its observations of Ultima Thule.

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. 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. Don't get too comfortable, then - whatever you prefer right now, that name is going to change.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.

Taken at the Mission Operations Center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel Maryland on Jan. 1 2019

"We have far less than 1 percent of the data stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons already down on the ground", Stern said.

These details though will provide scientists with a new perspective on planet formation. It is also the first planet "building block" from that space region.

"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. It is likely an icy fragment that coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago and that has remained in a deep freeze of the solar system's Kuiper belt ever since, some 6.5 billion kilometres (4 billion miles) from the sun. With instruments like the infrared mapping spectrometer, scientists will be able to tell as early as Wednesday what the ice making up the surface of Ultima contains.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Ultima Thule" is not the body's official name - that would be (486958) 2014 MU69. It will now continue to speed onward to observe other Kupier Belt objects.

May says the project "epitomises the human spirit's unceasing desire to understand the universe we inhabit" and adds: "Everyone who has devoted so much energy to this mission since its launch in January 2006 will be feeling they are actually inside that small but intrepid vehicle as it pulls off another spectacular close encounter".

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