Published: Fri, January 04, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

We now know a lot more about that cosmic body, and it looks like a snowman.

Light travel time back to the Earth was expected to be some six hours as we await the images that will hopefully be coming in from this distant remnant of the creation of the solar system! It was the fastest spacecraft ever launched at the time (only recently supplanted by NASA's Parker solar mission), and the fifth manmade object to reach solar escape velocity.

New Horizons, designed by and managed from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, has been speeding toward the edge of the solar system for 13 years.

These details though will provide scientists with a new perspective on planet formation.

This artist's impression 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, may not be that far off: the Kuiper Belt object appears to be a duo locked in a permanent kiss. As NASA announced well in advance of the flyby, it's going to take months for the spacecraft to send its trickle of information back to Earth, and sciences will surely be eager to get their hands on it.

One leading theory is that of pebble accretion, which posits that bits of raw planetary material of all shapes and sizes glommed onto each other until they became singular, gargantuan units.

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth.

The probe had to target Ultima very precisely to be sure of getting it centre-frame in the view of the cameras and other instruments onboard. The improved resolution also draws attention to the object's "neck", where the two lobes are connected.

"The spacecraft is in peak health", said Stern.

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"And I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it", he said, prompting a round of applause from team members and guests in the APL auditorium.

Thule is estimated to be 9 miles (14 kilometers) across, while Ultima is thought to be 12 miles (19 kilometers).

This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and it's the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. The mission team named the larger object "Ultima" and the smaller one "Thule". Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation.

Despite the slender connection point, the two lobes are "soundly bound" together, according to Moore. "If you had a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms", he said.

As well as being the most distant object reached, Ultima Thule may be the oldest celestial object to be studied by a spacecraft.

"Different kind of rocks", he said.

And the images confirmed what observations using the Hubble Space Telescope had suggested as New Horizons scientists scouted Ultima Thule - that, like parts of Pluto and its moon Charon, it has a rusty hue.

Ultima Thule's unique, lumpy appearance was achieved when two chunks of matter collided at extremely slow speed - perhaps even as slow as as two cars nudging together, the team states.

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