Monday, 25 March, 2019

NASA New Horizons image shows weird Ultima Thule looks like a snowman

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA
Cary Marshall | 04 January, 2019, 09:55

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. The spacecraft "has brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history".

New Horizons, designed by and managed from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, has been speeding toward the edge of the solar system for 13 years.

Nasa confirmed Tuesday that the spacecraft - New Horizons - completed its flight past Ultima Thule at 12.33am on January 1, Eastern Time.

The latest images transmitted by the New Horizons probe, as it continues the 20-month process of sending Earthwards all that lovely science data collected during its flyby, show Ultima Thule is actually a "contact binary" consisting of two connected spheres.

Slowing turning, they eventually touched at each other at what mission geology manager Jeff Moore called an "extremely slow speed" - maybe just one to a few miles per hour.

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images.

"I had no idea Ultima Thule had Nazi connotations", he wrote.

"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a Nasa briefing.

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Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

Before today, it wasn't known if Ultima Thule was a single object or two objects orbiting one another. It resembled something of a pixelated peanut, or a celestial bowling pin.

The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined.

The two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary". "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". Before Ultima Thule was intercepted by the New Horizons spacecraft, scientists knew nearly nothing about it, but they were eager for a glimpse of what's thought to be an nearly unchanged relic from our solar system's earliest days.

"Different kind of rocks", he said.

Names matter, even when they're temporary nicknames for objects 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) away from Earth.

"The primary association of Thule and Ultima Thule are with travel and exotic places and cold places - it's associated with travel gear, it's associated often with distant places in Greenland", he told Newsweek. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets. "Ultima Thule is the first object that will shed light on those earliest conditions".

A NASA probe has beamed back images of an object lying one billion miles past Pluto - and the hi-res images show it looks like a 21-mile-high snowman. The Kuiper belt object is now 4 billion miles from the sun. Scientists think the object could contain the chemical signatures of the early solar system. The coming weeks will reveal more about the object's composition and terrain.

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