Published: Sat, January 05, 2019
Research | By Dana Schwartz

Sharper New Horizons photos reveal Ultima Thule as a reddish space "snowman"

Sharper New Horizons photos reveal Ultima Thule as a reddish space

The first detailed picture from Tuesday's flyby of the world reveals a double body shape - or snowman shape as scientists have called it.

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman said she was more nervous this time than she was with Pluto in 2015 because of the challenges and distance, so vast that messages take more than six hours, one way, to cross the 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers).

On Wednesday, NASA scientists shared newly downloaded data revealing the distant object at greater resolutions. The small object appeared as a point source in Hubble Space Telescope images, where it was discovered in 2014, and in images from New Horizons itself until a couple days before the flyby.

He added that if there was any shock from the Ultima Thule fly-by, it was how fortunate the scientists were for finding it in the Kuiper Belt.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. Gravity is holding them together.

The Kuiper Belt is the edge of our solar system, part of the original disk from which the sun and planets formed.

It also looks pristine, nearly unchanged since it formed out of a disk of dust and gas that orbited the sun more than 4.5 billion years ago.

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 3540 kilometres of it and providing a better look at the surface.

The probe had to target Ultima very precisely to be sure of getting it centre-frame in the view of the cameras and other instruments onboard.

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'We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour'.

Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. On average, the object is about as bright as the darkest spot on Pluto's surface, Verbiscer says. As a result, chemical reactions have essentially stalled.

It is the farthest away from the sun that any spacecraft has investigated an object. The ratio of the larger lobe to the smaller is estimated to be about 3-to-1.

A third factor is just the nature of the environment. New Horizons's journey into the solar system's past has just begun. The Kuiper belt hasn't been stirred up.

Jeff Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator from Nasa's Ames Research Centre, said the pair would have come together at very low speed, at maybe 2-3km/h.

New Horizons' achievements are getting wide notice. Mission scientists are working on additional funding. "On the one hand, it has a clear, non-Nazi historical meaning, similar to terra incognita".

Keeping with the spirit of space exploration, the "New Horizons" song weaves in a few quotes by the late Stephen Hawking. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on January 1, 2019.

If the craft holds up, and the support mission back on Earth gets funding for a "hyperextended mission", New Horizons could be sampling the interstellar medium by the time today's newborns are finishing high school.

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