Sci-tech

NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

The first image of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft earlier this week revealed a bowling pin.

New Horizons passed within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, which lies in the Kuiper Belt some four billion miles from Earth.

It zoomed past Pluto - collecting numerous photos and reams of information about the now dwarf planet - in July 2015, and reached Ultima Thule early on New Year's Day.

For Ultima Thule - which wasn't even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 - the endeavor was more hard.

It's a new, weird world.

"Human beings are born, we change over time, and, eventually we die", says Jason Kalirai, civil space mission area executive at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

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

As the spacecraft transmits dozens more data sets to Earth, "we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule-and the Solar System", according to New Horizons Project Manager Helene Winters. When a solid radio link finally was acquired and team members reported that their spacecraft systems were green, or good, she declared with relief: "We have a healthy spacecraft".

"We see no unambiguous evidence", Moore said. The center is a higher-resolution image.

It consists of two nearly spherical lobes, one with about three times the volume of the other.

New Horizons captured the images from a distance of around 50,000 miles from the surface of Ultima Thule.

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"I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign", Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming process, told me at Newsweek in March.

The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens".

A contact binary fits with some theories of how the planets formed - that clouds of pebbles clumped together into larger lobe-size bodies, and then these two lobes gently bumped into each other and stuck. A single body is more likely, they noted. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

Now, scientists have found that Ultima Thule is 19 miles long, and completes its rotation in 15 hours.

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

Scientists are keen to study Ultima Thule as it lives in a region that has been relatively untouched since the formation of the solar system, which in turn helps them better understand planetary formation.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg", Stern said.

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

The past two days have been incredibly exciting for NASA and its New Horizons spacecraft.

May went on to explain how the New Horizons mission directly inspired his new solo track. "If that proposal is accepted, we would start a search for [another] object that we could fly by", Stern said.