Nasa's New Horizons mission releases snowman-like picture of Ultima Thule

Nasa's New Horizons mission sent home close-up images of Ultima Thule, a 20-mile-long space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt.
Scientists released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Ultima Thule.
Scientists released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Ultima Thule.SCREENSHOT: NASA

LAUREL, Maryland (NYTIMES) - Ultima Thule, an icy world 6.4 billion km from the sun, looks like a big snowman.

At a news conference on Wednesday (Jan 2), scientists working with Nasa's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Tuesday.

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

"It's two completely different objects that are now joined together," said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission.

It also looks pristine, almost unchanged since it formed out of a disk of dust and gas that orbited the sun more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Studying it could offer insights to how Earth and the other planets formed.

A day ago, scientists released a blurry picture of the small body also known by its official designation 2014 MU69 taken from a distance of 800,000km, taken before the flyby.

The object looked sort of looked like a fuzzy bowling pin.

The first batch of science data from the flyby arrived on Earth on Tuesday afternoon.

More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered at 8pm for a look.

"Everybody was there," Hammel said. "They all wanted to see it. The picture goes up, and everybody applauds and cheers. Immediately, the chatter starts."

 

A second shift of scientists worked on the data overnight, presenting more detailed analysis during a science team meeting on Wednesday morning.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule. It is likely an icy fragment that coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago and that has remained in a deep freeze of the solar system's Kuiper belt ever since, some 6.4 billion km from the sun.

If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how our planet and its neighbors formed.

Even clearer pictures are arriving on Earth in another transmission.

The full set of data will be a long time coming - trickling across the solar system over the next 20 months.