New Horizons Probe Reveals Snowman-Shaped Ultima Thule

New Horizons Probe Reveals Snowman-Shaped Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months.

From then on, the mission team was of the mind that Ultima Thule was actually a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an "extreme prolate spheroid") or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching (a close or contact binary).

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of light brick.

A day ago, scientists released a blurry picture of the small body also known by its official designation 2014 MU69 taken from a distance of half a million miles, taken before the flyby.

The two spheres spiralled closer to each other and eventually got stuck together.

The first color image of Ultima Thule.

Ultima's current rotation rate, estimated at about 15 hours for a complete turn, isn't fast enough to fling the two balls apart, Moore said.

"In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule - and the solar system", says Helene Winters, New Horizons project manager.

The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.

The details of the shape conclusively answer the mystery of why New Horizons did not detect variations in Ultima Thule's brightness as it approached. This image from video made available by NASA shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule.

Flight controllers in Maryland declared success 10 hours after the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, an astounding 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

This is consistent with other irradiated objects that are in the Kuiper Belt, Carly Howett, mission co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, said yesterday.

Based on photos snapped by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), scientists estimate Ultima Thule is about 19 miles long; its dual spheres measure 12 miles across ("Ultima") and nine miles across ("Thule"). Signals confirming the spacecraft had survived the encounter and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations centre at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland nearly exactly 10 hours later, Earth Sky reported.

Scientists hope to have New Horizons (now moving at 32,000 mph) fly by a second Kuiper Belt object before heading into interstellar space, the fifth manmade object (following two Pioneer craft and two Voyagers) to leave the Solar System.

He added: 'It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science'. For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start.

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