NASA says icy object past Pluto looks like reddish snowman

Rosemary Collier
January 5, 2019

It resembled something of a pixelated peanut, or a celestial bowling pin.

"That image is so 2018". The images, she said, also showed some brightness variations on the surface, including a brighter area in the neck where the two bodies meet. "And it's illuminated by a sun that's 1,900 times fainter than it is outside on a sunny day on Earth, So we're basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour".

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).

Early images show that Ultima Thule is about 31 kilometers by 19 kilometers.

Well, Ultima Thule has now become the first inhabitant of the rocky outer ring of the solar system (the Kuiper belt) that scientists have seen up close.

New Horizons reached Pluto in July 2015 and revealed an fantastic planet, rich in detail and structure. By contrast, he suggested, scientists did not know for sure whether other two-lobe bodies - most notably the rubber ducky-like Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - were two objects that came together or one larger body that had eroded into its current shape. The larger, 12-mile-wide mass has been nicknamed "Ultima". He also said that New Horizons was the first spacecraft to directly explore an object "that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system". Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said.

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Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

Carly Howett, another researcher of the mission, noted that "we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", perhaps due to irradiation of ice.

Another round of imagery and data was received today and will be the focus of a news conference on Thursday.

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

Scientists had suspected that Ultima Thule would not be perfectly round since the summer of 2017, when a global network of observers found the rock passing in front of a distant star.

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"Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let 'em hijack it", Stern said. The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working.

"This mission's always been about delayed gratification", Stern reminded reporters. The blurred image which happened to be the very first one to be sent by the spacecraft gave a perception to the scientists that the asteroid was a kind of pea-shaped.

"We see no unambiguous evidence", Moore said.

What's so special about the Kuiper belt? But Stern said that the phrase Ultima Thule is hundreds, if not a thousand, years old, and is apropos because it means "beyond the known universe" in Latin.

Ultima Thule is about 33 kilometers long (21 miles) and is in the Kuiper Belt, a "twilight zone" of small icy and rocky objects that lies beyond Neptune that is only faintly illuminated by the sun.

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