Ultima Thule Is a Distant, Icy Little Object, Just Like Your Father

Mindy Sparks
January 3, 2019

The tiny, icy object resembles a snowman in the photo, which is just the first of a whole host of data that the space agency hopes to receive back.

The New Horizons spacecraft yesterday flew past Ultima Thule, which was discovered via telescope in 2014 and is the farthest and potentially oldest cosmic body ever observed by a spacecraft.

Now they will work to download and look through all of the data sent back over that long distance, a process that could take years.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: "It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt".

Why it matters: The last few years have been incredibly exciting for space exploration thanks to successful missions from probes like Cassini and New Horizons.

They said it the image showed "the first contact binary ever explored by spacecraft". The mission team have chose to name the larger mound (or the body) Ultima, and the smaller mound (or the head) Thule.


NASA launched New Horizons in 2006 when Pluto was still considered a planet. In this image, "Thule" is the upper, smaller lobe and "Ultima" is the larger, bottom lobe.

Images taken during the spacecraft's approach - which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST - revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). From left to right: an enhanced color image, a higher-resolution black and white image, and an overlay that combines both into a more detailed view.

On Wednesday, NASA officials said they "could not be happier" with the latest image of the "snowman", which it said were "separate objects now joined together". This union was not violent; the two bodies came together at about walking speed, in a meetup more akin to a spacecraft docking than to a collision, said Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center, the leader of New Horizons' geology and geophysics team.

"Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement".

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin. "It took us nine years just to get to the first target".

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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