NASA spacecraft sends images of icy object past Pluto

James Marshall
October 8, 2019

But puzzling through the origins of the Solar System using only the final products, like our own Earth, is like trying to discern a recipe from a loaf of fully baked bread: numerous components have already been substantially, and often irreversibly, altered by heat and time.

If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how our planet and its neighbours formed. And yes, higher resolution images are expected, hopefully confirming Ultima Thule really does look like a giant misshapen Nerd fished from the bottom of the box.

This "new kind of world", as described by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, illuminates the early stages of our Solar System, 4.5 billion years ago.

Ultima Thule is a tiny, icy body known as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO).

The mutual gravity of Ultima Thule's lobes appears to be holding the pair together, and scientists theorise that smaller objects have settled in the valley, or "neck", where the lobes meet, giving a brighter appearance.

The New Horizons team believe Ultima and Thule slowly collided soon after the solar system was taking shape.

Some 4.5 billion years ago a cloud of frozen pebbles began to join forces, gradually forming two bodies - Ultima and Thule. This "localized swarm", he says, created two separate orbs, each around 10 miles in diameter.

At the peak of the encounter, New Horizons got within a mere 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of Ultima Thule.

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin.

This first color photo of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule reveals the object's red color as seen by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) during a January 1, 2019 flyby. Is it two icy objects orbiting each other, or a single "peanut"?

Because Ultima Thule is so small and distant, it's very hard for researchers to tease out many of its attributes, even with the most advanced telescopes available today.

"When I first saw the images, I think I probably said "wow" a million times", says Anne Verbiscer, New Horizons' assistant project scientist.

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"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space", New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, said in a statement. Out in the Kuiper Belt, reds may result from the irradiation of ices, but that's far from the only possibility.

Despite its historic achievement, NASA has faced some backlash over its nickname for (486958) 2014 MU69.

These tantalizing tidbits are only the beginning.

The good news is New Horizons is healthy enough and has enough juice to visit another one. The coming weeks will reveal more about the object's composition and terrain. Similar processes are responsible for the reddish hue of much of Pluto's surface, as well as the northern reaches of that dwarf planet's largest moon, Charon (which apparently got this reddish material from Pluto). It's something that, instants before, didn't exist in our minds-now it does.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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