Published: Sat, January 05, 2019
Sci-tech | By Lila Blake

Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

The latest view from NASA's New Horizons probe shows an icy object known as 2014 MU69 or as Ultima Thule to consist of two balls of icy material stuck together.

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.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. That created the two bodies seen at Ultima Thule: a larger one, dubbed simply "Ultima", that is 19 kilometers across, and a smaller one, "Thule", 14 kilometers across.

The new image also resolved the debate about the nature of Ultima Thule.

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.

"That has brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history, to a place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".

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.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the color of boring brick. Occasional astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen Brian May has gifted us with a song in tribute to NASA's successful mission to flyby Ultima Thule.

Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

The images have been taken from as close as 17,000 miles, though it will take days for the high-resolution photos to be uploaded to Earth, given the bandwidth limitations of moving data across the span of the entire solar system.

The first sharp picture of the "city-sized world" the New Horizons probe travelled 6.5 billion kilometres to explore has been unveiled, to the delight of NASA. Olkin said the initial data will focus on specific bands that could help scientists identify water ice or other volatiles.

Well, Ultima Thule has now become the first inhabitant of the rocky outer ring of the solar system (the Kuiper belt) that scientists have seen up close.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: 'It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt. More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered at 8 p.m. for a look.

It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation. For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.

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