Published: Thu, January 03, 2019
Science | By Patricia Jimenez

First close-ups of Ultima Thule reveal it resembles snowman

First close-ups of Ultima Thule reveal it resembles snowman

The New Horizons team has released the first high-resolution images of (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, the furthest object ever explored by a spacecraft.

The tiny, icy object resembles a snowman in the photo, which is just the first of a whole host of data that the space agency hopes to receive back.

According to the BBC, he said: "Everything that we're going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing - is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we've gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can't tell us because they're either large and evolve, or they are warm".

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"This flyby is a historic achievement", Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator said. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to 2014 MU69, the small little red world in the center of the Kuiper Belt that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by for close-range exploration less than two days ago.

The colour variation shows just how dark the object is with the brightest areas reflecting just 13 per cent of the light falling on them. The team released an image taken before the flyby while the spacecraft was still some one million miles from Ultima Thule. New Horizons scientists have begun to analyse the first data sent back by the spacecraft.

Carly Howett, another researcher of the mission, noted that "we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", perhaps due to irradiation of ice. The left image is color-enhanced. That means its two lobes are separate objects that have joined together.

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NASA shared a graphic showing how an object like Ultima Thule forms: "as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine". In fact, it takes more than six hours for radio signals carrying information from New Horizons to deliver the data to NASA's Deep Space Network.

Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006.

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At the peak of the encounter, New Horizons got within a mere 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of Ultima Thule. The centre image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five.

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