New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

Monday, 07 Oct, 2019

This is Ultima Thule, the latest space object detected and photographed by NASA's New Horizons mission.

A day ago, scientists released a blurry picture of the small body also known by its official designation 2014 MU69 taken from a distance of half a million miles, taken before the flyby. On Wednesday, more distinct and color images revealed a snowman. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima". At around 4.1 billion miles from Earth, it takes roughly six hours for radio signals from the probe to reach Earth. To create an accurate image (on the right), scientists had to produce a composite. The next step for NASA will be to download and analyze the data captured, a process that could take years.

The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists.

Stern said much of the data will improve as they receive better images.

"As we get closer and closer to the target the sun illumination will change", said Jeff Moore, from NASA's Ames center.

More information continues to be downloaded, including topography, atmosphere, and composition of Ultima Thule.

"This flyby is a historic achievement,"Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement".

These details though will provide scientists with a new perspective on planet formation.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas also credits McKean, who arrived in Arkansas by Red River steamboat in 1833, with being the community's first postmaster, but doesn't specifically credit him for naming it.

The New Horizons team believe Ultima and Thule slowly collided soon after the solar system was taking shape. These illustrations (from James Tuttle Keane) show how Ultima Thule was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time".

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 2,200 miles of it and providing a better look at the surface. This would indicate that Ultima Thule's either never had a run-in with another space body and/or was broken off of some other larger body of material so recently that no major added damage has yet occurred. This is consistent with other irradiated objects that are in the Kuiper Belt, Carly Howett, mission co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, said Wednesday. "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it".

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.