The odd world of NASA spacecraft target 'Ultima Thule'

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

At a January 2 press conference at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here, scientists working on the mission released new images showing that the Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is a "contact binary", two objects touching one another, with an appearance some likened to a snowman.

"It's a snowman", mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of light brick.

Planetary scientists have now nicknamed the two lobes, giving the name Ultima to the larger one and Thule to the smaller one.

The close-up photos of Ultima Thule lend support to a theory of planet formation.

So far, scientists have learned that Ultima is red, with a rotational period of roughly 15 hours.

When asked about the Nazis' use of the term, Showalter confirmed that he was aware of the usage and said that the New Horizons team and NASA, including its legal department, decided that the original meaning was more prominent and outweighed the less savory connotations.

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

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Flyby data solved one of Ultima's mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons.

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.

To the extent that the earliest imagery can show it, the surface of Ultima Thule, is mostly reddish in color - less so, at the neck, or, where the two lobes join - with a relatively low reflectivity, ranging from about 13 percent of the incident sunlight down to about 6 percent in some areas.

Given NASA's plans to extend its mission, New Horizons will continue to boldly go where no man [spacecraft] has gone before.

Well, Ultima Thule has now become the first inhabitant of the rocky outer ring of the solar system (the Kuiper belt) that scientists have seen up close.

New Horizons was launched in 2006 on a mission to fly by Pluto.

The images are obviously very low in resolution, and it's not immediately clear if or when we'll get a better glimpse of the rock, but New Horizons still has a lot of data to beam back to Earth. "This really puts the nail in the coffin now", Stern said.

NASA researchers promised fresh announcements would drop Thursday, including on the composition and atmosphere of Ultima Thule, as new images with even more precise resolution have come through. "The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close".

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