NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like snowman

by Fredrick Graves January 5, 2019, 0:46
NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like snowman

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.

Despite that primitive appearance - if not because of it - they said the object nicknamed Ultima Thule could offer profound new insight into how the planets formed more than 4½ billion years ago.

NASA said it named the larger portion Ultima and the smaller section Thule. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

"I sort of thought we might get that question", mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said after a reporter asked about the name's criticisms during a news conference held today to present the first high-resolution images and preliminary science results from the flyby.

"Human beings are born, we change over time, and, eventually we die", says Jason Kalirai, civil space mission area executive at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand.

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of boring brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.

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It showed Ultima Thule, formally known as 2014 MU69, is actually a pair of reddish spheres that have been fused together by gravity, they said. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph. NASA's space probe managed to come within 3,540 km of Ultima Thule, a 32-km-long space rock in the Kuiper Belt - a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit. Is it two icy objects orbiting each other, or a single "peanut"?

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. The nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as seen by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, has two lobes that appear connected by a narrow "neck" region.

"The term "Ultima Thule" was many centuries old ... and is a wonderful name for exploration". But the signal to confirm the spacecraft's location did not reach Earth until 10 hours later.

The scientists believe its two spheres probably came together as far as 99 percent of the way back to the time of the solar system's formation, coming together at about the speed one might pull into a parking space. Scientists think the object could contain the chemical signatures of the early solar system. "Those moments when you see an image for the first time. It's something that's completely different".

"This is the first object that we can clearly tell was born this way" Stern said, instead of evolving as a sort of "bi-lobe".

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