Thursday, 17 January, 2019

Ultima Thule is first contact binary to be explored by a spacecraft

Ultima Thule A bowling pin? A peanut? A celestial propellor
Doris Mccormick | 04 January, 2019, 12:16

"Meet Ultima Thule!" said lead investigator Alan Stern, doing little to hide his joy as he revealed a new sharper image of the cosmic body, taken at a distance as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometers) with a resolution of 140 meters per pixel.

"I've said it a number of times, I think New Horizons is an example - one of the best examples in our time - of raw exploration, and the term Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly over a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration", Stern said. The Kuiper belt object is now 4 billion miles from the sun.

Nasa said that the goal of the New Horizons mission was to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt to study "the origins and outskirts of our solar system".

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for "making history".

After the news conference, Stern told GeekWire that Ultima Thule and other nicknames relating to 2014 MU69's features would give way to formal names to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but it's too early to say which names would be submitted to the IAU by the New Horizons discovery team.

Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when icy, pebble-size pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. "What you're seeing is the first contact binary ever explored by spacecraft: two completely separate objects that are now joined together".

Ultima orbits the Sun in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt.

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"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", he added.

That means that Ultima Thule is likely an object that dates back to the formation of the solar system, as scientists suspects prior to the flyby.

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

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule". New Horizons provided the first images of Pluto sharp enough to reveal surface details like vast plains of frozen nitrogen and methane dunes. This image was taken by the craft's Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which combines light from the infrared, red and blue channels.

The color photo was then combined with the image taken by the LORRI camera (which has almost five times the spatial resolution of the MVIC) to produce a detailed image that shows the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. The larger sphere, which the team has now dubbed "Ultima", is 12 miles (19 km) wide, while the smaller one, "Thule", measures 9 miles (14.5 km) across.

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