January 19, 2019

Photos reveal origin of space rock Ultima Thule, resembling red snowman

04 January 2019, 12:16 | Ross Houston

Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

NASA during a press conference on Wednesday shared the clearest images yet of Ultima Thule, the furthest object ever explored by a spacecraft. Together they form Ultima Thule, a frozen world that is almost 4.5 billion miles from Earth, more distant than Pluto.

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

The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for "making history".

"In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule - and the solar system", said Helene Winters, New Horizons Project Manager.

Moore believes MU69 is composed of small icy bodies that are about 4.5 billion years old.

New images of what looks like an upside-down two-ball snowman floating in space (taken from as close as 17,000 miles on approach) is actually a "contact binary"-two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge".

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead Jeff Moore said in a statement.

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'These are the only remaining basic building blocks in the back yard of the solar system that we can see that everything else that we live on, or receive through our telescopes, or visit with our spacecraft, were formed from. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

Though Ultima Thule formed a long time ago, it remains pristine, seemingly unmarked by craters.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. Based on early images it looked like a bowling pin but a new consensus emerged with new images. An earlier colour image, taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVC), shows a reddish surface, that, rather than NASA's snowman assertion, put us in mind of South Park's Mr Hankey.

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

Scientists can also now infer some geological properties of Ultima Thule.

The narrow "neck" between the two lobes appears to be relatively bright, perhaps suggesting that particular materials might have settled there.

"#UltimaThule used to be two separate objects".

Ultima Thule is one of hundreds of thousands of space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit.

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