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

13 September 2019

NASA during a press conference on Wednesday shared the clearest images yet of Ultima Thule, the furthest object ever explored by a spacecraft.

NASA's New Horizons' team released the first close-up images from Ultima Thule on Wednesday afternoon. 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 smaller one, which is 9 miles across, is "Thule". Gaining a deeper understanding of Ultima Thule and how it formed may assist us in understanding how our solar system formed.

The good news is New Horizons is healthy enough and has enough juice to visit another one.

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

This image from video made available by NASA on Wednesday Jan. 2 2019 shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on Tuesday Jan. 1 2019. (NAS
New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

"We have far less than 1 percent of the data stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons already down on the ground", Stern said. The rotation variables here are figured by watching the light curve given by Ultima Thule - it's most certainly a spinning set of buddies.

"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. In an animation created by NASA using three of the images we can see the oblong shape of Ultima Thule, which NASA describes as looking like a bowling pin.

Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago.

This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object.

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The two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary".

Despite the slender connection point, the two lobes are "soundly bound" together, according to Moore.

The body has a mottled appearance due to some surface irregularities or differences in elevation.

So far, no moons or rings have been detected, and there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos, though there were a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges, scientists said.

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In the meantime, get ready for even better images and science tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".

"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.

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