NASA spacecraft sends images of icy object past Pluto

03 January, 2019, 07:28 | Author: Emilio Conner
  • Ultima Thule

To Earthlings, it looks like a snowman. The spacecraft "has brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history".

The black-and-white photo was taken from about 30,000 miles away, as New Horizons sped toward its target at 32,000 miles per hour. Ultima Thule is an object in the icy Kuiper belt. A distant object now actually feels real to everyone here on Earth. The first batch that scientists revealed Wednesday was only a taste, but it was a tantalizing one, they said. It's appearance, which resembles that of a snowman, beautifully illustrates the kinds of processes that created our Solar System roughly four and a half billion years ago.

Ultima Thule is one of few building blocks left from that process that humans have explored - and the only pristine example from that time. "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.

"Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let 'em hijack it", Stern said.

Instead, they focused on what the new images told them about planetary science. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length.

The distant object that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past January 1 is now taking shape as a body - or bodies - unlike any visited by a spacecraft to date. In 2015, the spacecraft passed Pluto, providing the first images of a world once considered our ninth planet. The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere "Thule" (9 miles/14 kilometers across). Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist, said the object has a rotation period of approximately 15 hours.

So gentle was the initial contact between the two lobes of MU69 that Mr. Moore related it to getting into a fender bender auto accident that produces no damage; you wouldn't bother filling out the insurance claim.

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Yesterday, Principal Investigator Alan Stern said that if he had to bet, his money would be on 2014 MU69 being a single object - a prediction agreed to by others on the panel. That means its two lobes are separate objects that have joined together.

NASA has released the first image from the historic Ultima Thule flyby taken with New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera.

In the coming days, weeks and months, NASA scientists will continue to receive new data from New Horizons, revealing Ultima Thule in greater detail. Having formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system taking shape, it is also the most primitive object seen up close like this. Scientists think the object could contain the chemical signatures of the early solar system.

Nevertheless, Ultima Thule isn't the object's official name - a formal name will need to be proposed to the International Astronomical Union. "What we're looking at is basically the first planetesimals", Moore said. "We know this is how many objects like this form".

He added that if there was any shock from the Ultima Thule fly-by, it was how fortunate the scientists were for finding it in the Kuiper Belt. "Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own Solar System and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy".

NASA now expects New Horizons' mission in the Kuiper Belt to run through 2021 at least.

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