Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

NASA researchers promised fresh announcements would drop Thursday, including on the composition and atmosphere of Ultima Thule, as new images with even more precise resolution have come through.

Released by NASA, this is the first colour image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 kilometres and highlighting its reddish surface.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of boring brick. It likely formed over time as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine. And the metaphors write themselves! "It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control in Laurel. 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.

The first detailed images beamed back from the United States agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery. He and his colleagues plan to apply for NASA approval to extend their mission, either to conduct another Kuiper belt object flyby or explore other aspects of the outer solar system.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", Moore said.

The new length measurement of 33 km (21 miles).

The object is composed of two distinct lobes in contact with each other, with a 3-1 ratio in terms of their respective size. "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.

Though most people haven't heard of the term's unsavoury use by the Nazis, the New Horizons team was aware of it and went with the name anyway, science reporter Meghan Bartels reported for Newsweek in March 2018.

Ultima was chosen as a follow-up object for study, coming after New Horizons' 2015 flyby of Pluto and its moons. It does show the tight, squeezed area of a belt, the small region where the two lobes are in contact. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

New Horizons no one's ever seen before. It appears not to have any impact craters.

The initial "bowling pin" image.

Instead, the first images beamed down from the spacecraft show it resembles a snowman - or even the BB-8 droid robot from the "Star Wars" film series. He added: "We've never seen anything like this before".

Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions.

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