Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

Rosemary Collier
January 3, 2019

Laurel, Md. - We are getting our first good look at the most distant object ever explored - a piece of rock spinning way out in space.

"It's two completely different objects that are now joined together", said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission.

After the news conference, Stern told GeekWire that Ultima Thule and other nicknames relating to 2014 MU69's features would give way to formal names to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but it's too early to say which names would be submitted to the IAU by the New Horizons discovery team.

New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST (5:33 a.m. GMT) January 1, 2019, ushering in the era of exploration from Kuiper Belt, a collection of icy bodies left over from the Solar System's formation 4.6 billion years ago.

So, indeed, as predicted by the mission scientists, 2014 MU69 is what's known as a contact binary.

Instead, the first images beamed down from the spacecraft show it resembles a snowman - or even the BB-8 droid robot from the "Star Wars" film series.

While much higher-resolution images will provide a better sense of the topography and geography of 2014 MU69, what is now known is that the bottom, larger lobe ("Ultima") contains changes in elevation greater than one kilometer and that the upper, smaller lobe ("Thule") may contain a plateau feature. At right, the colour has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the colour uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes.

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Scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges.

After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.

If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how our planet and its neighbours formed. 'We could not be happier, ' he said.

Ultima Thule in colour.

So how did Ultima Thule form?

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", he added.

The flow of images and scientific insights is expected to get stronger in the days, weeks and months ahead, as the spacecraft sends back several gigabytes of stored data at a rate of 1,000 bits per second.

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

"So stay tuned", Jeff Moore, the New Horizons geology team lead, said on Wednesday.

Data and images will continue to come in throughout the day, with more announcements to come soon.

The hope is that the course of the spacecraft can be altered slightly to visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.

For a half-year, the New Horizons team had puzzled over the possible shape of MU69, which was little more than an oblong dot in Hubble Space Telescope images.

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