First Decent Ultima Thule Image Reveals Textbook Contact Binary

James Marshall
August 24, 2019

"Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy".

Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Team, Team Lead, NASA Ames Research Center, spoke a bit about the formation of Ultima Thule.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

The new images - taken from as close as 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres.

Ultima Thule's unique, lumpy appearance was achieved when two chunks of matter collided at extremely slow speed - perhaps even as slow as as two cars nudging together, the team states.

"We could not be happier", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said.

Detailed images beamed back from the New Horizons spacecraft showed that Ultima Thule, which lies some 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away from Earth, is composed of two spheres, or "lobes".

"Our solar system is 4 billion years old... so its initial conditions have been kind of washed out", Kalirai explains. A similar process is likely happening on Ultima Thule.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out". Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched - as slowly as parking a auto here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour - and stuck together.

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.

The two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary".

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. The smaller is Thule at 9 miles across. NASA said during today's press conference that better lighting and closer proximity to the target will result in much improved images.

Just such a nickname - Ultima Thule (pronounced TOOL-ie), for New Horizons' recent flyby target, 2014 MU69 - stirred controversy on Twitter late last night and early today (Jan. 1 and 2). According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand.

We will never forget this moment.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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