'Snowman' shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed

Katie Ramirez
January 6, 2019

New Horizons completed the farthest flyby in history when it came within about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST on January 1, zooming past the object at more than 32,000 miles (51,000 kilometers) per hour.

Data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which explored Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule earlier this week, is yielding scientific discoveries daily. In total, the object measures around 20 miles in length, while the two spheres are 12 and 9 miles across respectively.

In a briefing on Thursday, scientists said that they have not yet found any evidence of an atmosphere on UItima Thule. The probe's target was the oblong space rock known as Ultima Thule, and even though the spacecraft passed the massive rock at around midnight EST, NASA had to wait another ten hours before they even knew if the probe performed as planned.

The color of Ultima Thule matches the color of similar worlds in the Kuiper Belt, as determined by telescopic measurements, according to data analysis.

Located 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, Ultima Thule means "beyond the known world". This image can be viewed with stereo glasses to reveal the Kuiper Belt object's three-dimensional shape.

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The New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule, which was discovered via telescope in 2014 and is the farthest and potentially oldest cosmic body ever observed by a spacecraft.

NASA scientists think that the two spherical objects that make the Ultima Thule planetesimal - the basic building block of planets- likely coalesced around the time the solar system's planetary bodies formed, about 4.6 billion years ago.

Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead, squeaked excitedly: "New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system". It will keep pressing farther out, observing other objects from afar, and measuring dust and particles. Mark Showalter, a New Horizons investigator, said during a news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

New Horizons will disappear behind the sun (from Earth's perspective) for much of the coming week, so data downloading will need to pause for five days. Data transmission resumes January 10, starting a 20-month download of the spacecraft's remaining scientific treasures.

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