Icy object past Pluto looks like reddish snowman

Pablo Tucker
January 4, 2019

An earlier image of Ultima Thule, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft prior to the New Year's Day flyby at 12:33 a.m.

As the spacecraft transmits dozens more data sets to Earth, "we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule-and the Solar System", according to New Horizons Project Manager Helene Winters. Designed and launched in 2006 to investigate Pluto, it's already gone 1 billion miles farther out.

The probe's target was the oblong space rock known as Ultima Thule, and even though the spacecraft passed the massive rock at around midnight EST, NASA had to wait another ten hours before they even knew if the probe performed as planned.

"This flyby is a historic achievement", Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator said.

The US space agency's craft, the New Horizons, has been busy investigating it which is no small feat as it's pretty dark that far away from the sun.

"We think what we are looking at is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft", Moore says, "and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system".

Researchers believe the spheres were formed from two rotating clouds of smaller chunks of ice and pebbles that coalesced. Over time, two larger objects remained and slowly joined together in what scientists called "contact binary". "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time".

What has got scientists all a-quiver is that the appearance of Ultima Thule seems to confirm theories of planetary accretion, which has specks of dust colliding to form objects with sufficient gravity to attract each other.

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin.

The dark object is formed of two spheres which have combined to form one celestial object.

Prior to today, images of Ultima Thule were only a handful of pixels across, leaving the object's true physique ambiguous.

The first color image of Ultima Thule.

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.

So how did Ultima Thule form?

Ultima Thule is one of few building blocks left from that process that humans have explored - and the only pristine example from that time.

"So stay tuned", Jeff Moore, the New Horizons geology team lead, said on Wednesday.

"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.

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