Ultima Thule emerges as contact binary, "cosmic snowman", in new spacecraft images

Ultima Thule

"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

"We could not be happier", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said. It was the fastest spacecraft ever launched at the time (only recently supplanted by NASA's Parker solar mission), and the fifth manmade object to reach solar escape velocity.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.

At that time the outer fringes of the solar system consisted of "innumerable small particles or pebbles", Moore explained, that slowly coalesced into larger ones.

The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima", which measures 19 km (12 mi) in diameter, and the smaller sphere "Thule" (14 km; 9 mi).

"You can see they're clearly two separate objects that have come together", said Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist.

So gentle was the initial contact between the two lobes of MU69 that Mr. Moore related it to getting into a fender bender auto accident that produces no damage; you wouldn't bother filling out the insurance claim.

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all of its observations of Ultima Thule.

This means we're truly seeing one of the first planetesimals, or objects, that went on to form planets.

Ultima Thule is one of few building blocks left from that process that humans have explored - and the only pristine example from that time. The new images and data confirmed the icy space rock's classification as a contact binary. Moore said that the shape of that cometary nucleus could also be explained by activity as cometary ice sublimates. This image was taken by the craft's Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which combines light from the infrared, red and blue channels. The object has a mottled look, with the bright patches concentrated in mysterious circles while the darker areas seem more linear. That could be explained if the neck contains fine-grained particles that settle there from both lobes. The center image was taken by a black and white imager with a higher resolution. "This is exploration at its finest", said Dr. Adam Hamilton, President and CEO of Southwest Research Institute.

And the image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft now make it look more like a snowman, minus any facial features.

It'll take another 20 months to download all the data from the Ultima flyby.

Also on its way back to Earth are spectral data collected by the spacecraft.

First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask NASA to fund a further extension to the mission.

At least two bands - in Estonia and in Sweden - are named Ultima Thule, and four albums by European bands have the name, too.

The name dates back to the Roman empire, when it was used to describe some far, icy land, and even appeared on maps.

"Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let 'em hijack it", Stern said.

But calling the trans-Neptunian object by its official designation of 2014 MU69 was cumbersome and boring for NASA scientists, who considered some 34,000 names as part of a public competition in 2017.

The hope is that the course of the spacecraft can be altered slightly to visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.

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