NASA Releases First Visuals of Space 'Snowman' Ultima & Thule

Ignacio Smith
January 5, 2019

New Horizons provided the first images of Pluto sharp enough to reveal surface details like vast plains of frozen nitrogen and methane dunes.

From then on, the mission team was of the mind that Ultima Thule was actually a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an "extreme prolate spheroid") or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching (a close or contact binary). Based on the preliminary data, scientists now believe Ultima Thule is a contact binary - two pieces of space rock that slowly came together over time.

Jeff Moore, the mission's team lead for geology and geophysics, likened New Horizons to a time machine, taking scientists back to the birth of the solar system.

The event set a record for the most distant ever exploration of a Solar System object.

The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system. Ultima Thule is an object in the icy Kuiper belt. At left is an enhanced colour image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other".

The first color image of Ultima Thule.

Though they do not appear to have impact craters, there could be hills and ridges, with the neck connecting the two lobes being one of the steepest slopes.

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A second shift of scientists worked on the data overnight, presenting more detailed analysis during a science team meeting Wednesday morning. But the signal to confirm the spacecraft's location did not reach Earth until 10 hours later.

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings.

This lends support to a theory of planet formation that holds that planets are formed by a gentle accumulation of cosmic objects, rather than through catastrophic collisions between them.

"This is the first object we can clearly tell was born this way, and didn't evolve to look this way", Stern said.

Meanwhile, it must be said that New Horizons, indeed, is living up to its name.

Now, scientists have found that Ultima Thule is 19 miles long, and completes its rotation in 15 hours.

The object itself is as dark as potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute.

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Ultima Thule likely formed as a rotating cloud of small, icy objects started to combine.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said during the news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

While some have compared Ultima Thule to a snowman, others to a peanut.

Stereo analysis and subsequent imaging will be available soon.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote.

The first post-flyby images beamed down from New Horizons depict Ultima Thule as a pockmarked, two-tiered snowman.

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