NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

Gwen Vasquez
January 4, 2019

This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it made by the New Horizons spacecraft, on August 16, 2018.

"New Horizons performed as planned, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history - 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km) from the Sun", said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute.

The New Horizons team was also able to pin down Ultima Thule's size more accurately.

It comes after an unmanned NASA spacecraft sent a signal back to Earth after making a successful fly-by past the space object - the most distant world ever studied by mankind.

Jeff Moore, New Horizon's geological and geophysics lead, said Ultima Thule is "perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any space craft".

"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space".

The distant object that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past January 1 is now taking shape as a body - or bodies - unlike any visited by a spacecraft to date. The mission scientists believe that 4.5 billion years ago, a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies coalesced.

The new images show Ultima to be a contact binary, consisting of two separate masses that became stuck together.

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"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", he added. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". NASA is also interested in getting a closer look at the "neck" region of Ultima Thule, which appears much lighter in color than the rest of the surface.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. It takes a long time for data to travel million of miles across space - and the first images downloaded by NASA scientists showcased only a fuzzy peanut-like shape.

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule". Now, May has combined both of his loves on "New Horizons", his first solo song in more than two decades.

Besides the improved images, scientists also refined other knowledge of the object. That means it is a single object, with two lobes, but the lobes are gently in contact.

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth.

"I'm surprised that more or less picking one Kuiper belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", Stern says.

Stern noted that the team has received less than 1 percent of all the data stored aboard New Horizons.

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