New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

At a news conference on Wednesday, scientists working with NASA's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by on January 1.

Ultima Thule is what NASA describes as a "contact binary", meaning it is made up of two previously separate objects that are now bound together as one.

"It's two completely different objects that are now joined together", said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission.

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of boring brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.

Although NASA's Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not almost as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time.

During his science presentation, Stern also referred to the two lobes of the space rock as "Ultima" (the larger lobe) and "Thule" (the smaller one).

Ultima Thule in colour. Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined.

In addition to providing a clearer image of the object, the new data sent back to Earth from New Horizons has revealed significant information pointing to its origins and appearance.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 3540 kilometres of it and providing a better look at the surface.

This enhanced color image of Ultima Thule was taken at a distance of 85,000 miles and highlights its reddish surface.

"We have far less than 1 per cent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons, already down on the ground". This is how Ultima Thule is now showing itself to NASA and the rest of the planet from 17,000 miles out: The bowling pin of two days ago has now morphed into a snowman - or BB-8, as the Twitterverse is saying.

"We are seeing a physical representation of the beginnings of planetary formation, frozen in time", Moore said. 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.

"That image is so 2018", said Stern. Moore noted that the early images did not show any solid evidence of impact craters; additional images may reveal whether Ultima Thule has been struck in the past or is worn smooth.

"Let me say that bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman, if it's anything at all".

Carly Howett, another researcher of the mission, noted that "we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", perhaps due to irradiation of ice.

It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

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