NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

05 January, 2019, 06:45 | Author: Kristi Owen
  • Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

"If that proposal is accepted, we would start a search for [another] object that we could fly by", Stern said.

Engineers at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland cheered when the spacecraft's first signals came through the National Aeronautic and Space Agency's Deep Space Network at 10:28 a.m. EST (1528 GMT).

Nasa confirmed Tuesday that the spacecraft - New Horizons - completed its flight past Ultima Thule at 12.33am on January 1, Eastern Time.

It was the first exploration of such a primitive - and distant - planetary object in human history. The first batch that scientists revealed Wednesday was only a taste, but it was a tantalizing one, they said.

The appearance of Ultima Thule, unlike anything human have seen before, illuminated the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago, said NASA.

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

"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space", New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, said in a statement.

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

Mission organizers have been criticized for calling the object by a name that Nazis used for the mythical birthplace of the Aryan race. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".


This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object. As a whole, the little world measures 19 miles (30.5 km) long.

NASA uncovers icy matter resembling reddish snowman. 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.

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists. "If you had a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms", he said.

"This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together".

Because these images were taken with the sun directly behind the spacecraft, there are no shadows to highlight the topography.

In the coming days, weeks and months, NASA scientists will continue to receive new data from New Horizons, revealing Ultima Thule in greater detail.

"When I first saw the images, I think I probably said "wow" a million times", says Anne Verbiscer, New Horizons' assistant project scientist. Many more photos are expected to be released soon. He explains that Ultima Thule appears to be a basic planetary building block that was left over and is still lying around "the backyard of the solar system".

Ultima Thule, an icy world 6.4 billion kilometres from the sun, looks like a big snowman. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets.

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