First Detailed Images Of Ultima Thule Reveal Historic Find

Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote. It is more than a billion kilometres past Pluto, and 6.4 billion km from the Earth.

The good news is New Horizons is healthy enough and has enough juice to visit another one. One full rotation takes around 15 hours (give or take an hour). Resembling a 33-kilometer-long interplanetary "snowman", in the words of Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, and principal investigator for the $800 million mission, MU69 appears to have formed when two spherical objects gently smooshed together billions of years ago. "The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere "Thule" (9 miles/14 kilometers across)".

"This is the first object that we can clearly tell was born this way" Stern said, instead of evolving as a sort of "bi-lobe".

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.

"I'm surprised that-more or less-picking one Kuiper belt object out of a hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern during a press conference.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute and so forth have begun analyzing all aspects of Ultima Thule, including its most basic elements - like its number of hills, ridges, impact craters, etcetera. Better images should yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead. Now that we have this first image, we know that Ultima Thule is a bit of both: it's two asteroids that have collided and stuck together many years ago, becoming what's known as a contact binary. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.

Taken at the Mission Operations Center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel Maryland on Jan. 1 2019

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

It looks like a reddish snowman.

It's neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather "a primordial planetesimal".

The world is in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt.

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really wonderful", Stern said. "It's something that's completely different".

The remaining two lobes formed Ultima Thule, and with its material we have a window into the early solar system.

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