MU69 revealed as a contact binary in first New Horizons data returns

Katie Ramirez
January 3, 2019

NASA got 2019 started off with a bang, successfully piloting the New Horizons spacecraft on a flyby of Ultimate Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt, over 4 billion miles from Earth (over 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun).

Yesterday, Principal Investigator Alan Stern said that if he had to bet, his money would be on 2014 MU69 being a single object - a prediction agreed to by others on the panel.

Scientist Jeff Moore of Nasa's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago.

New Horizons launched in 2006 and flew by its initial target, Pluto, in 2015.

And the image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft now make it look more like a snowman, minus any facial features. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time". Stern said the spacecraft will resume transmitting in mid-January. Despite its long journey, the spacecraft is still chugging along and could potentially break through the belt to join NASA's Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft outside our solar system-if the mission is renewed, Space reports. The smaller sphere is "Thule", measuring 14 kilometres across.

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The New Horizons team has also been able to determine a rough calculation for 2014 MU69's rotation period at 15 hours +/- 1 hour, meaning that more than half of the object was in daylight as New Horizons passed and was therefore observed.

"Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy".

The Kuiper Belt body also has an extremely low surface reflectivity, with the New Horizons team likening it to dark potting soil in a garden. This was the farthest object that any craft has ever visited. The left image is color-enhanced.

"Unfortunately the approach images we're showing you that came down first just aren't conducive to determining whether there are craters on the surface or not", said Mr. Therefore, it wasn't practical for New Horizons to enter orbit of Pluto.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of light brick. A second batch of photos released Wednesday was more clear, prompting mission scientists to narrow their description from "bowling pin" to "snowman", AP reports.

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