Friday, 18 January, 2019

NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule A bowling pin? A peanut? A celestial propellor
Derrick Tucker | 03 January, 2019, 04:09

A NASA spacecraft travelling through space sent back pictures of the most distant object explored by mankind on Wednesday.

The first clear image of Ultima Thule shows what looks like a celestial snowman, a frozen world 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima. "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", she said.

SwRI's Cathy Olkin, one of the mission's deputy project scientists, said the red color could well be due to organic chemicals known as tholins that are coating the surface. The smaller, 9-mile-wide mass was given the nickname "Thule".

The new images show Ultima to be a contact binary, consisting of two separate masses that became stuck together. Is it two icy objects orbiting each other, or a single "peanut"?

The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph. The rock had no obvious impact craters. Unlike the Japanese rovers that performed a wild landing on a moving asteroid last fall, New Horizons is keeping its distance from Ultima Thule to thousands of miles, where it can capture details the size of a basketball court, according to mission scientists.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a wayback machine to time zero", Moore said.

Color images from New Horizons reveal that, like other Kuiper belt objects, it has a dark reddish hue.

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If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how our planet and its neighbours formed. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said. Despite its long journey, the spacecraft is still chugging along and could potentially break through the belt to join NASA's Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft outside our solar system-if the mission is renewed, Space reports. This is something of a mystery, because Ultima Thule is thought to be made mostly of ice.

"Everything that we're going to tell you [today] is just the tip of the iceberg", Dr Stern said.

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.

Data and images will continue to come in throughout the day, with more announcements to come soon.

It was the first exploration of such a primitive - and distant - planetary object in human history. The new images and science that have just been beamed back to NASA have fleshed out that pixelated blur into something believable.

The first detailed images beamed back from the United States agency┬┤s New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery.

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