New Horizons Probe Reveals Snowman-Shaped Ultima Thule

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NASA had a very happy New Year when its New Horizons spacecraft successfully flew by mysterious Ultima Thule, a space rock located a billion miles past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt.

The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.

The small world, 6.5 billion km from Earth, is actually two objects joined together. This image confirms that Ultima Thule (official designation (486958) 2014 MU69) is a "contact binary" object, the first one ever explored up close.

In March, NASA and the New Horizons team announced their decision to use Ultima Thule as a nickname for the second stop on their solar system tour, which is officially known as 2014 MU69, a formula that designates when it was discovered.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, had "28,000 pixels on the target ... which way beats six pixels", Stern joked referring to the fuzzy, bowling-pin picture that was released the day before.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. Then the spheres slowly spiralled closer to each other and stuck together.

Data from the New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule will be coming in for about two years.

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Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation. The comment was greeted with applause by New Horizon team members and their supporters.

The first color image of Ultima Thule.

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 will New Horizons show us when it transmits an even more HD image to Earth? "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said. "Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own Solar System and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy".

The color photo was then combined with the image taken by the LORRI camera (which has almost five times the spatial resolution of the MVIC) to produce a detailed image that shows the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. The left image is color-enhanced. The improved resolution also draws attention to the object's "neck", where the two lobes are connected.

At a press conference Tuesday, the New Horizons mission's principal investigator S. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said, "I don't know about you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far".

As Helene Winters, New Horizons' Project Manager, indicated, it won't stop there. The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working.