The Pictures are Here! New Horizons Close Up View of 2014 MU69

Cesar Mills
January 4, 2019

Nasa has released photos of its fly-by of Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, revealing its ancient origin as two round objects squashed together.

Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, is an elongated body about 31 kilometres long, consisting of two fused-together spheres. Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft.

The first colour image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface.

The small object appeared as a point source in Hubble Space Telescope images, where it was discovered in 2014, and in images from New Horizons itself until a couple days before the flyby.

All of this information came from "far less than 1% of the data on New Horizons that has reached the ground", said Alan Stern, mission principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

Objects like Ultima Thule, on the other hand, remain in the icy outer crust of our disc-like solar system.

New images of what looks like an upside-down two-ball snowman floating in space (taken from as close as 17,000 miles on approach) is actually a "contact binary"-two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge".

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Ultima orbits the Sun in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule. Before that, scientists only had a blurry image of the body and thought it was composed of two more elongated parts - resembling something more like a peanut or bowling pin.

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start.

After it coasted through, NASA selected Ultima Thule as the next observational target and set a course. The image on the right combines the tow to give us a clearer view in color. Initially, the New Horizon's team believed that the object was a spherical chunk of ice and rock measuring 18-41 km (10-30 mi) in diameter.

Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule - meaning "beyond the known world" - before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. "We know this is how many objects like this form".

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