First high-resolution images of Ultima Thule released

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

The early images do not show obvious signs of craters caused by impacts.

Detailed images beamed back from the New Horizons spacecraft showed that Ultima Thule, which lies some 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away from Earth, being composed of two spheres, or "lobes". The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima". 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.

It is by far the most distant world a spacecraft - and by extension humanity - has ever explored. We'll continue to learn much more about the object's geology in the coming hours and days.

It has now been confirmed Ultima Thule is red in colour, "a lot like the Mordor Macula region of Pluto's large moon, Charon", co-investigator Carly Howett said.

Images also revealed that the two lobes have a mottled appearance. After it coasted through, NASA selected Ultima Thule as the next observational target and set a course.

"What we think we're looking at is the end product of a process that probably took place only a few hundred thousand or maybe a few million years at the very beginning of the formation of the solar system", said Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center.

While some have compared Ultima Thule to a snowman, others to a peanut. It astounded the New Horizons science team, including astrophysicist Brian May. Based on the preliminary data, scientists now believe Ultima Thule is a contact binary - two pieces of space rock that slowly came together over time.

While most of us were popping the corks on bottles of champagne, NASA engineers were holding their breath as they watched the calendar flip to 2019 on the East Coast. Kuiper belt objects "are the first planetesimals", he said.

About ten hours ago, NASA shared a picture of the snowman-shaped Ultima Thule on Twitter. "This is exploration at its finest", said Dr. Adam Hamilton, President and CEO of Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern called the mission "a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in spaceflight". The smaller one, which is 9 miles across, is "Thule". But the scientists cautioned that could be because of the high angle of the available sunlight at the time initial images were recorded by New Horizons' cameras, and that the topography, possibly including hills or ridges, will be better revealed by future images.

Scientists hope to have New Horizons (now moving at 32,000 mph) fly by a second Kuiper Belt object before heading into interstellar space, the fifth manmade object (following two Pioneer craft and two Voyagers) to leave the Solar System.

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