Published: Fri, January 04, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

First close-ups of Ultima Thule reveal it resembles snowman

First close-ups of Ultima Thule reveal it resembles snowman

Ultima Thule is what NASA describes as a "contact binary", meaning it is made up of two previously separate objects that are now bound together as one.

This are only the first images from the probe, captured at a resolution of about 140 meters per pixel.

The fuzzy bowling pin from that first data stream has been replaced by the new snowman version.

"That image is so 2018".

"It's only really the size of something like Washington DC and it's about as reflective as garden-variety dirt, and it's illuminated by a sun that's 1,900 times fainter than it is outside on a sunny day here on the Earth", he said. "We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000mph (51,000km/h) and all that had to happen just right", he said.

"I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign", Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming process, told me at Newsweek in March.

The first color image of Ultima Thule highlights its reddish surface.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges.

Additionally, the New Horizons team can now definitely say that-just as the images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope several years ago tentatively predicted-Ultima Thule's hue is a toasty brownish-red.

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"I'm surprised that, more or less picking one Kuiper Belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", he said. Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said.

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a wayback machine to time zero", Moore said. The massive area of swirling objects at the edge of the solar system also contains Pluto.

"The spacecraft is in peak health", said Stern. Some of the data acquired by New Horizons might shed light on that. The spacecraft came within about 3,520km (2,200 miles) of Ultima Thule.

In response to a reporter's question, Stern addressed the controversy head-on.

Despite its historic achievement, NASA has faced some backlash over its nickname for (486958) 2014 MU69.

This means we're truly seeing one of the first planetesimals, or objects, that went on to form planets.

The MU69 story is only starting to unfold, Stern added. The full set of data will be a long time coming - trickling across the solar system over the next 20 months. "That's why we chose it", Stern said during a Wednesday press conference.

What's so special about the Kuiper belt? "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". Shortly after the encounter, New Horizons beamed back a handful of initial images showing a bowling pin-shaped object.

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