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

Pablo Tucker
September 13, 2019

NASA' New Horizons probe has taken new photographs of the celestial being, making it the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft.

Detailed images beamed back from the New Horizons spacecraft showed that Ultima Thule, which lies some 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away from Earth, is composed of two spheres, or "lobes". "The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere "Thule" (9 miles/14 kilometers across)". "We know that this is how these kinds of objects in many cases form". But when better pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", announced Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager for New Horizons, to a cheering crowd of scientists, engineers, members of the media, and guests on Tuesday morning.

The release comes a day after mission scientists released a pixelated photo taken prior to the flyby about 500,000 km from the object, which is farther than the distance from the moon to Earth.

This image from video made available by NASA on Wednesday Jan. 2 2019 shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on Tuesday Jan. 1 2019. (NAS

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern was proud of what the men and women behind the scenes accomplished.

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.

"As we get closer and closer to the target the sun illumination will change", said Jeff Moore, from NASA's Ames center. We'll continue to learn much more about the object's geology in the coming hours and days. NASA hopes it will help to illuminate how planets were created four and a half billion years ago, both in our solar system and beyond.

New Horizons may eventually try to take a photo of Earth, but turning back to do so would risk the Sun destroying the camera.

Scientists say Ultima Thule is actually two objects stuck together.

In the meantime, get ready for even better images and science tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead.

"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 unbelievable", Stern said.

MU69 appears to have few craters or other signs of violent impact, supporting the idea that the solar system's building blocks formed when friction and gravity gently drew together clouds of dust and gravel-a theory known as pebble accretion.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

"I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign", Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming process, told me at Newsweek in March.

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