Photos reveal origin of space rock Ultima Thule, resembling red snowman

Carlton Robbins
January 5, 2019

Occasional astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen Brian May has gifted us with a song in tribute to NASA's successful mission to flyby Ultima Thule.

It zoomed past Pluto - collecting numerous photos and reams of information about the now dwarf planet - in July 2015, and reached Ultima Thule early on New Year's Day.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule - meaning "beyond the known world" - before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two.

Images taken during the spacecraft's approach - which brought New Horizons to within just 3,500 kilometres of Ultima - revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 32 by 16 kilometers. The object, the most-distant ever explored, is known as a "contact binary".

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion mile journey toward the solar system's frigid, faraway edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

It's also a glimpse 4.5 billion years back in time, to the origins of the solar system, because the distant planetesimal has nearly certainly orbited unchanged in the frozen Kuiper Belt since it formed.

Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other, researchers said.

At 12:33 a.m. Eastern time (0533 GMT), the New Horizons probe will arrive at the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt, scientists said.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

The initial "bowling pin" image. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule based on the image at left.

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He added: 'It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science'.

"Everybody was there", Hammel said. The picture goes up and everybody applauds and cheers.

"[Ultima's] only really the size of something like Washington DC, and it's about as reflective as garden variety dirt, and it's illuminated by a Sun that's 1900 times fainter than it is outside on a sunny day here on the Earth".

"We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour".

"The term, Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration, and that's why we chose it", Stern said.

That's where Ultima Thule comes in: It looks to be a partial conglomeration of uncooked space dough-a premature mashup that could have served as the basis for a planet, but didn't.

This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object.

The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s, while the nuclear power and other spacecraft systems are still good.

We have a lot more data to download from New Horizons over the coming months at the painfully slow rate of one kilobit per second.

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