Deep space mission reveals photos of Ultima Thule 'snowman'

13 Septembre, 2019, 20:38 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary

These are only the first photos of Ultima Thule giving us a good look at the side facing the New Horizons craft.

Some 4.5 billion years ago a cloud of frozen pebbles began to join forces, gradually forming two bodies - Ultima and Thule.

NASA's New Horizons mission has sent back the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored in the solar system, dubbed Ultima Thule, which lies four billion miles away. The broken record was also previously set by the same probe, after it passed Pluto in 2015. "It will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth". With the arrival of the photos, they are now calling the bigger sphere Ultima and the smaller one Thule. The volume ratio is about three to one, which incidentally is the optimal size difference when snowman building. It is more than a billion kilometres past Pluto, and 6.4 billion km from the Earth. NASA and the New Horizons team told Newsweek that they'd kept the name because of its more innocent meaning, but it's hard to shake that stigma.

"We could not be happier", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", he added. Scientists named originally named it Ultima Thule because the term infers that it's "beyond the limits of the known world".

New Horizons scientists were surprised by Ultima Thule's binary composition, and the team has spent the past day trying to figure out how the object formed.

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

Taken at the Mission Operations Center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel Maryland on Jan. 1 2019

"As we get closer and closer to the target the sun illumination will change", said Jeff Moore, from NASA's Ames center.

"Let me say that bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman, if it's anything at all". The two objects were slowly pulled together by gravity, creating the "bilobed" object with a distinct "neck".

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

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule. So far, no moons or rings have been detected, but even better images will yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really awesome", Stern said.

Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule. It's not fish or fowl.

The remaining two lobes formed Ultima Thule, and with its material we have a window into the early solar system.

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