New Horizons reveals Kuiper Belt object is a contact binary

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

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on Tuesday flew past a small icy object four billion miles from the sun named Ultima Thule - a record-setting mission that will give a glimpse of what lies on the edge of the solar system.

The first image (shown at top), was taken by the spacecraft's Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at 05:01 UTC (01:01 EDT) on January 1st, 2019.

The scientists now say with confidence that Ultima Thule long ago was two bodies that got stuck together, what they call a "contact binary".

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.

After successfully completing its Pluto flyby in 2015, the agency redirected the spacecraft to visit an even more distant object known as Ultima Thule. The astronomical body was labeled Ultima Thule which means beyond the known world prior to scientists could vociferate certainly if it is one object or two. It also comes with a visual that tells the story of the Ultima Thule project. It has a rotation period of about 15 hours. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

In addition to providing a clearer image of the object, the new data sent back to Earth from New Horizons has revealed significant information pointing to its origins and appearance.

The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote. In an animation created by NASA using three of the images we can see the oblong shape of Ultima Thule, which NASA describes as looking like a bowling pin.

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The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph.

About ten hours ago, NASA shared a picture of the snowman-shaped Ultima Thule on Twitter.

"Let me say that bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman, if it's anything at all". "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.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where New Horizons is operated, were up late, working to transform those bits of data into the first high-resolution image of a Kuiper belt object. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand. "This really puts the nail in the coffin now", Stern said.

He added: "It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science".

"The term, Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration, and that's why we chose it", Stern said.

More data on Ultima Thule is streaming back to NASA at this very moment, so expect additional announcements in the coming days.

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