First high-resolution images of snowman-shaped Ultima Thule released by Nasa

04 January, 2019, 12:14 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

Early on New Year's Day, New Horizons passed within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule - the most distant planetary flyby in history.

At a news conference Wednesday, scientists working with NASA's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Tuesday.

The new images, taken at a distance as close as 27,000 kilometers (17,000 miles) told a different story.

In a lengthy update by the New Horizons team, the group boasts that New Horizons sent back a signal to its handlers letting them know that it had filled its on-board recorders with a wealth of science data that it collected as it zoomed past Ultima Thule. NASA said the joining of the two objects illuminates the processes that built the planets billions of years ago.

The first detailed images beamed back from the USA agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery. It is likely an icy fragment that coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago and that has remained in a deep freeze of the solar system's Kuiper belt ever since, some 4 billion miles from the sun.

We believe that Ultima Thule, which represents pristine, unchanged icy material from the early days of the solar system, formed when small, icy bodies came together, accreting into larger ones. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".


Ultima Thule was formed by the joining of objects orbiting around each other.

"You can see they're clearly two separate objects that have come together", said Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist. Data that New Horizons collected as it approached its target suggested that Ultima Thule was bowling-pin-shaped and spinning like a propellor.

Prior to today, images of Ultima Thule were only a handful of pixels across, leaving the object's true physique ambiguous. New Horizons provided the first images of Pluto sharp enough to reveal surface details like vast plains of frozen nitrogen and methane dunes. NASA dubbed the larger lobe Ultima, and the other, which is about three times smaller, Thule. It does show the tight, squeezed area of a belt, the small region where the two lobes are in contact.

"And I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it", he said, prompting a round of applause from team members and guests in the APL auditorium.

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.

So how did Ultima Thule form? The comment was greeted with applause by New Horizon team members and their supporters.

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