NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

A new picture returned from USA space agency NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows the little world to be two objects joined together - to give a look like a "snowman". Scientists think the object could contain the chemical signatures of the early solar system.

"This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be two separate objects that are now bound together", NASA wrote on Twitter. This finding lends support to a theory of planet formation that suggests worlds are born from slow accumulation, rather than catastrophic collisions, researchers said.

The object itself is as dark as potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute.

So how did Ultima Thule form?

New Horizons conducted its successful flyby of Ultima Thule, which is classed as a minor planet, on Tuesday. He's a rocket scientist by day and rock star by night. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows. The image on the left is an enhanced color image, the center image is a higher resolution image of the object and the right image shows the color overlaid onto the higher resolution image.

In the coming weeks and months, data from the New Horizons' flyby will continue to be received by the mission controllers. They could not see any large craters on its surface, though they said some could be revealed in images taken from different angles. "That's elation", he said.

Ultima Thule was one of 37 monikers that people nominated and was a "relatively common suggestion", though not common enough to suggest ballot-stuffing by trolls or other bad actors, according to Bartels' reporting.

Just one day has made a startling difference in how we view this mysterious Kuiper Belt object.

"Let me say, that bowling pin is gone". "It's going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science". Is it two icy objects orbiting each other, or a single "peanut"? "If you had a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms", he said. "You don't need to fill out any paperwork".

It showed Ultima Thule, formally known as 2014 MU69, is actually a pair of reddish spheres that have been fused together by gravity, they said. Frozen in time, the object may allow NASA to collect data that it hopes can give us further insight into the history and formation of our solar system. The remaining two lobes formed Ultima Thule, and with its material we have a window into the early solar system.

New Horizons captured the images from a distance of around 50,000 miles from the surface of Ultima Thule. If it were spinning fast - say, one rotation every three or four hours - the two spheres would rip apart.

And there are many more oddities to be explored, scientists said.

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

Next week, the spacecraft will be unable to transmit any data due to radio interference from the sun. The spacecraft's subsystems are healthy, and it has sufficient fuel to operate for another 15 to 20 years.

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