Published: Thu, January 03, 2019
Sci-tech | By Laverne Osborne

'Snowman' shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed

'Snowman' shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed

For a half-year, the New Horizons team had puzzled over the possible shape of MU69, which was little more than an oblong dot in Hubble Space Telescope images. Shortly after the encounter, New Horizons beamed back a handful of initial images showing a bowling pin-shaped object.

For quite some time, this model has relied heavily on the theory that small pieces of dust in the protoplanetary nebula surrounding the Sun after its birth collided with each other and stuck together to form larger specs of dust.

But even as the researchers celebrated their triumph of celestial navigation, the mission drew unwanted attention for the name Ultima Thule.

This first data is a result from New Horizons approaching Ultima Thule with the sun behind the spacecraft, making it hard to see whether there are craters.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day. Then the spheres spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched - as slowly as parking a vehicle here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour - and stuck together. "Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own Solar System and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy".

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"New Horizons swept down over Ultima Thule in a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in space flight", said Stern in a livestream of the press conference on NASA's New Horizons site, and the shot of an elated (which is still an understatement) New Horizons team he put up onscreen spoke for itself.

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".

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of tiresome brick. But Stern said that the phrase Ultima Thule is hundreds, if not a thousand, years old, and is apropos because it means "beyond the known universe" in Latin.

Today's imagery, derived from data sent back to Earth on the previous day, literally casts a whole new light on the 19-mile-long object - which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by the nickname given by the New Horizons team, Ultima Thule ("Ul-ti-ma Too-lay"). On the right, the color from the MVIC image as been has been overlaid onto the LORRI image, to show the color uniformity of the two lobes. It does show the tight, squeezed area of a belt, the small region where the two lobes are in contact. The left image is color-enhanced.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine", said Jeff Moore, the mission's lead geology and geophysics scientist. Because Pluto is so far away, New Horizons had to get moving at a phenomenal speed to get there in a reasonable amount of time. He added: "We've never seen anything like this before". The comment was greeted with applause by New Horizon team members and their supporters.

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