NASA finally reveals the ice world known as Ultima Thule. The icy world, 4 billion miles from the sun, looks like a big snowman.
So, after the historic flyby of a faraway world, Ultime Thule NASA just received a photo from their New Horizons spacecraft. The icy world turns out to be two objects joined together – a “contact binary” shaped like a snowman.
New Horizons images acquired as it approached Ultima hinted at the possibility of a double body, but the first detailed picture from Tuesday’s close flyby confirms it.
The probe reached its target on New Year’s Day at 12:33 am ET. But the signal traveling at light speed didn’t reach Earth until yesterday morning.
New Horizons encountered Ultima 6.5 billion km from Earth.
At a news conference on Wednesday, scientists working with NASA’s New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by on Jan. 1.
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Though the icy world appeared to be bowling pin-shaped, its actual structure has remained hazy until now.
The scientists now say with confidence that Ultima Thule long ago was two bodies that got stuck together, what they call a “contact binary.”
“It’s two completely different objects that are now joined together,” said S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the mission.
NASA received a confirmation signal from the spacecraft at 10:31 a.m. It expects to receive images from the flyby in coming days.
It looks like the distant world hasn’t changed at all since it formed out of a disk of dust and gas that orbited the sun more than 4.5 billion years ago.
The new image, the furthest photo ever taken, shows Ultima Thule is a very dark red, two-lobed object. The world is 21 miles (33 kilometers) long and 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide.
New results confirmed that the object rotates with a period of 15 hours or so. It is also very dark, reflecting only 6 to 13 percent of the incoming sunlight, Cathy Olkin, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a press conference.
The rock had no obvious impact craters.
However, data and images will continue to come in throughout the day, with more announcements to come soon.
Thumbnail image: The first clear image of the Ultima Thule, beamed back after the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby on Jan. 1. Credit: JHUAPL/NASA