New Horizons probe reveals distant Ultima Thule asteroid looks like a snowman

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it made by the New Horizons spacecraft, on August 16, 2018.

Ultima Thule appears in an image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on Jan.1, 2019, from a range of 18,000 miles. "It will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth".

The photographs of Ultima Thule, captured by the New Horizon spacecraft, were revealed at a press conference on Wednesday.

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out". The mission scientists believe that 4.5 billion years ago, a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies coalesced.

The image: The object, which looks a little like a snowman, is what's known as a "contact binary", a body consisting of two connected spheres measuring 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length.

The nature of New Horizons' mission provided NASA with a unique opportunity to explore more of the outer solar system after the 2015 main event. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

Ultima Thule's surface reflects light about as much as "garden variety dirt", he said, as the sun's rays are 1,600 times fainter there than on Earth. Tholins are also behind the reddish color in a crater on the surface of Pluto's biggest moon, Charon, but scientists say the process behind its deposition on Ultima is likely to be different.

"Now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", said Carly Howett, a New Horizons planetary scientist.

The shape of Ultima Thule had been the subject of speculation for years leading up to the flyby. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand.

Images also revealed that the two lobes have a mottled appearance.

A Google search for "Ultima Thule" found not just references to the Kuiper Belt object and the mission but also a lodge in Alaska, Finnish glassware and an Australian radio show, among other citations. Is it two icy objects orbiting each other, or a single "peanut"? "Just because some bad guys once liked the term, we're not going to let them hijack it". According to NASA scientists, Ultima Thule is one of the most primitive space objects we've ever observed and may hold key information about the building blocks of our Solar System.

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