Spacecraft opens new year with flyby on solar system’s edge

05 January, 2019, 02:46 | Author: Patty Aguilar
  • Ultima Thule

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.

This image taken January 1 by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The first detailed images beamed back from the U.S. agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery.

It's also a glimpse 4.5 billion years back in time, to the origins of the solar system, because the distant planetesimal has nearly certainly orbited unchanged in the frozen Kuiper Belt since it formed. "Ultima Thule is the first object that will shed light on those earliest conditions". That means it is a single object, with two lobes, but the lobes are gently in contact.

It's an awesome discovery, especially considering that the possibility of Ultima Thule being a binary duo had been floated a number of times over the course of the lengthy New Horizons mission. That will change as later images, taken at different angles, are sent back, Moore said.

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).

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 ½ years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.

Data that New Horizons collected as it approached its target suggested that Ultima Thule was bowling-pin-shaped and spinning like a propellor.


Though they do not appear to have impact craters, there could be hills and ridges, with the neck connecting the two lobes being one of the steepest slopes.

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.

Stern, Bowman and other key players soon joined their friends in the auditorium, where the celebration continued and a news conference took place.

The "snowman", named Ultima Thule, orbits an area known as the Kuiper Belt.

Jeff Moore leads the New Horizons' geology team. More data on Ultima Thule is streaming back to NASA at this very moment, so expect additional announcements in the coming days.

"They're clearly two objects that have come together", says New Horizons' Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said.

"Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let 'em hijack it", Stern said.

The last time we saw Utlima Thule, it was a blur against the blackness of space, something not almost convincing enough of its existence.

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