Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

Jan 05, 2019, 00:46
Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

The first image of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft earlier this week revealed a bowling pin. That will change as later images, taken at different angles, are sent back, Moore said.

"It's a snowman", mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

"I'm here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly".

The distant object that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past January 1 is now taking shape as a body - or bodies - unlike any visited by a spacecraft to date.

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The contact binary shape of Ultima Thule is consistent with models of the formation of the Kuiper Belt.

Carly Howett, another researcher of the mission, noted that "we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", perhaps due to irradiation of ice. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation", Stern said.

Stern expressed surprise, and elation, that after picking the mission target "more or less" out of the hat, "that we were able to get as big a victor as this, that is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science". The Thule Society, founded in 1918 around this and other occultist beliefs, later became the Nazi Party. The massive area of swirling objects at the edge of the solar system also contains Pluto.

If the craft holds up, and the support mission back on Earth gets funding for a "hyperextended mission", New Horizons could be sampling the interstellar medium by the time today's newborns are finishing high school. 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.

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Ultima Thule may be only 20 miles long and shaped like a dog bone, with a possible small moon attached.

The appearance of Ultima Thule, unlike anything human have seen before, illuminated the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago, said NASA.

That means that Ultima Thule is likely an object that dates back to the formation of the solar system, as scientists suspects prior to the flyby. The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" and the smaller sphere "Thule".

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start. The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other".

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Names matter, even when they're temporary nicknames for objects 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) away from Earth.