March 26, 2019

New Horizons reveals a 'snowman' at the edge of the solar system

04 January 2019, 12:13 | Edward Lowe

A bowling pin? A peanut? A celestial propellor

Ultima Thule

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.

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

The New Horizons probe, about the size of a piano, has been flying through space for more than a dozen years and provided the first-ever close-up of Pluto in 2015.

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, said from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on Wednesday.

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

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The New Horizons spacecraft on Tuesday flew past Ultima Thule, which was discovered via telescope in 2014 and is the farthest and potentially oldest cosmic body ever observed by a spacecraft. Over time, two larger objects remained and slowly joined together in what scientists called "contact binary".

"I think we should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a way-back machine set to time zero, that's brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history to the place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".

The body likely formed as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

In its original use, the term Ultima Thule is ancient, first used during the Roman Empire and also popular during the medieval period, referencing lands that are both very distant and very cold - which the Kuiper Belt object of course is.

Also of interest is the apparent lack of craters, hinting at a surface built through accretion rather than the violent impacts seen in the inner solar system.

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

The new colour image also revealed it to be definitively red, like the top of Pluto's moon Charon. That means it is a single object, with two lobes, but the lobes are gently in contact.

Jeff Moore leads the New Horizons' geology team.

As the New Horizons team still awaits more detailed images of MU69, New Horizons will continue to journey deeper into space.

The narrow "neck" between the two lobes appears to be relatively bright, perhaps suggesting that particular materials might have settled there. "Now being scientists were not all that creative with words so we've chose to do is name one lobe Ultima and the other Thule".

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Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

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