Published: Fri, January 04, 2019
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Most distant space object ever explored resembles reddish snowman

Most distant space object ever explored resembles reddish snowman

NASA's New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto three-and-a-half years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year's Day.

The returned New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first image of the ice world, Ultima Thule. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other and stuck together.

Ultima Thule in colour.

This tiny Kuiper Belt asteroid-like body, 2014 MU69, was the new target of the New Horizon's spacecraft.

"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation". The massive area of swirling objects at the edge of the solar system also contains Pluto.

"If you have a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not bother to fill out the insurance forms", he joked.

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.

"This is the first object we can clearly tell was born this way, and didn't evolve to look this way", Stern said. "These are the only remaining basic building blocks".

While some have compared Ultima Thule to a snowman, others to a peanut.

The two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary". Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist, said the object has a rotation period of approximately 15 hours.

An analysis of the picture showed that Ultima's brightest spots reflect 13 percent of the light that falls on them, while the darkest spots reflect only 6 percent.

New Horizons captured the images from a distance of around 50,000 miles from the surface of Ultima Thule.

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".

This is consistent with other irradiated objects that are in the Kuiper Belt, Carly Howett, mission co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, said yesterday.

It dates back to the fourth century, when it was widely used to describe freezing northern lands, both real and fabled. "If that proposal is accepted, we would start a search for [another] object that we could fly by", Stern said.

"I'm surprised that more or less picking one Kuiper belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", Stern says.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, defended the name as well. It was chosen from about 34,000 names submitted by an online nomination process.

Ultima Thule is over 40 times farther from the Sun than Earth; this deep in outer space, temperatures clock in around -400 degrees Fahrenheit-and these frigid, Sun-starved conditions can make for fairly pristine preservation.

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