Science

Nasa says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like ‘snowman’

Nasa says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like ‘snowman’

Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, was found to consist of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 21 miles (33 kilometers) in length.

As the new year arrived here on Earth, the team at NASA began receiving the first data from the New Horizons spacecraft confirming it had reached a mysterious object on the outer edge of our solar system.

The flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.

The New Horizons probe, about the size of a piano, has been flying through space for more than a dozen years and provided the first-ever close-up of Pluto in 2015.

"I sort of thought we might get that question", mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said after a reporter asked about the name's criticisms during a news conference held today to present the first high-resolution images and preliminary science results from the flyby.

The US space agency's craft, the New Horizons, has been busy investigating it which is no small feat as it's pretty dark that far away from the sun.




We now know the basics of this odd object, the most distant solar system body ever explored by a spacecraft. Then the spheres spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched - as slowly as parking a vehicle here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour - and stuck together. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".

"They're clearly two objects that have come together", says New Horizons' Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin. It takes a long time for data to travel million of miles across space - and the first images downloaded by NASA scientists showcased only a fuzzy peanut-like shape.

For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher. An earlier colour image, taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVC), shows a reddish surface, that, rather than NASA's snowman assertion, put us in mind of South Park's Mr Hankey.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months.

New Horizons captured the images from a distance of around 50,000 miles from the surface of Ultima Thule. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima.

The narrow "neck" between the two lobes appears to be relatively bright, perhaps suggesting that particular materials might have settled there. We'll continue to learn much more about the object's geology in the coming hours and days.


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