NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

Pablo Tucker
October 7, 2019

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

Since New Horizons sent its first post-flyby message, the mission team slowly but surely has been receiving a trickle of data on Ultima Thule (pronounced TOOL-ee, a Latin phrase meaning "a place beyond the known world"), which is located a staggering 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth. Then the spheres spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched - as slowly as parking a vehicle here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour - and stuck together. It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

'These are the only remaining basic building blocks in the back yard of the solar system that we can see that everything else that we live on, or receive through our telescopes, or visit with our spacecraft, were formed from. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead.

The object looked sort of looked like a fuzzy bowling pin.

These new images are a huge improvement over earlier snaps, but New Horizons is far from finished.

The first high-resolution images of a 34km tall snowman-shaped object that lies a billion miles beyond Pluto have been released by Nasa.

"This is fundamentally important because it's our first look at a real Kuiper belt object - in this case, a planetesimal - the thing that these small planets were built out of", Stern said.

The object has two lobes, with the larger one now taking the name Ultima and the smaller becoming Thule.

Color may seem trivial, but for the New Horizons team, it's critical information that will help the researchers determine what ices and minerals decorate the object's surface, says Silvia Protopapa, a co-investigator of the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission.

So far, no moons or rings have been detected, and there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos, though there were a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges, scientists said.

Scientists have theorized that all objects in the solar system probably formed in a similar way, but they never had the opportunity to study these primordial structures until now.

Signals confirming the probe is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center at 10:29 a.m. EST (3:29 p.m. GMT).

And while the first images may still be a bit disappointing, the best pictures will be arriving in the days and weeks ahead. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It's not fish or fowl.

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