Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

Scientists think the object could contain the chemical signatures of the early solar system. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets. Mission scientists are working on additional funding. More data on Ultima Thule is streaming back to NASA at this very moment, so expect additional announcements in the coming days. He's a rocket scientist by day and rock star by night. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows.

The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph.

"Just like with Pluto, we could not be happier", Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, said, recalling the spacecraft's 2015 flyby of that world. "That's elation", he said.

Before that flyby, the only image scientists had was a blurry one showing Ultima Thule's oblong shape, resembling something like a bowling pin or a peanut. The Kuiper belt object is now 4 billion miles from the sun.

"Let me say that bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman, if it's anything at all".

He added: "It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science".

The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima", which measures 19 km (12 mi) in diameter, and the smaller sphere "Thule" (14 km; 9 mi).

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Since there are two separate lobes to the object, the team felt they needed to come up with a name for each.

"If you have a collision with another auto at those speeds, you may not bother to fill out the insurance forms", he joked. "You don't need to fill out any paperwork".

It also looks pristine, nearly unchanged since it formed out of a disk of dust and gas that orbited the sun more than 4.5 billion years ago.

What is perhaps most exciting about the final confirmation that 2014 MU69 is a contact binary is that it begins to solidify models of solar system formation and planetary accretion.

The images are obviously very low in resolution, and it's not immediately clear if or when we'll get a better glimpse of the rock, but New Horizons still has a lot of data to beam back to Earth. But unlike those objects, which have encountered more space debris and endured the sun's heat, Ultima Thule is thought to be mostly unchanged since it formed.

And there are many more oddities to be explored, scientists said. Moore noted that the early images did not show any solid evidence of impact craters; additional images may reveal whether Ultima Thule has been struck in the past or is worn smooth.

Now they will work to download and look through all of the data sent back over that long distance, a process that could take years. That includes a brief delay next week, when the sun comes between the Earth and the spacecraft, blocking all transmissions. Because Pluto is so far away, New Horizons had to get moving at a phenomenal speed to get there in a reasonable amount of time. The spacecraft's subsystems are healthy, and it has sufficient fuel to operate for another 15 to 20 years.

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