Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, on the first day of 2019, successfully "phoned home" after a journey to the most distant world ever explored by humankind.

The new images - taken from as close as 27 000km on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres.

Resembling a 33-kilometer-long interplanetary "snowman", in the words of Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, and principal investigator for the $800 million mission, MU69 appears to have formed when two spherical objects gently smooshed together billions of years ago.

Released by NASA, this is the first colour image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 kilometres and highlighting its reddish surface.

This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it made by the New Horizons spacecraft, on August 16, 2018.

The object has two lobes, with the larger one now taking the name Ultima and the smaller becoming Thule.

That's where Ultima Thule comes in: It looks to be a partial conglomeration of uncooked space dough-a premature mashup that could have served as the basis for a planet, but didn't. Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation.

It's no simple matter to reach the outer solar system, so NASA is making the most of the opportunity it has with the New Horizons probe.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

More news: Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma celebrates New Year in street of Sydney

New Horizons spent 13 years travelling to Ultima Thule's location at the heart of the Kuiper Belt.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the color of tiresome brick.

The mission team has chose to call the larger lobe "Ultima" and the smaller lobe "Thule".

As the spacecraft transmits dozens more data sets to Earth, "we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule-and the Solar System", according to New Horizons Project Manager Helene Winters.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of a body like Ultima Thule. New Horizons is so far away it can only send data at about 2,000 bits per second, so it took time to get the new, higher-quality images. "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.

Color may seem trivial, but for the New Horizons team, it's critical information that will help the researchers determine what ices and minerals decorate the object's surface, says Silvia Protopapa, a co-investigator of the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission.

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

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth. "The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close".

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