NASA Probe Sends Back First Images Of Ultima Thule

This image taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the spacecraft. It was taken at 12:01 a.m. EST

This image taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the spacecraft. It was taken at 12:01 a.m. EST

As Ultima Thule is seen to rotate, hints of the topography can be perceived. New Horizons encountered Ultima 6.5 billion km from Earth. But Ultima is 1.5 billion km further out. Flying by the rock in the early hours of New Year's Day, the probe sent a signal to the mission team on Earth to confirm its accomplishment.

The larger spherical object is called "Ultima" while the smaller one is called "Thule".

The mutual gravity of Ultima Thule's lobes appears to be holding the pair together, and scientists theorise that smaller objects have settled in the valley, or "neck", where the lobes meet, giving a brighter appearance. The volume ratio is three to one. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He joked: "If you had a collision with another vehicle at those speeds you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms". NASA is publicly releasing a lot of data that is being captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it makes observations of the KBO. "Ultima is telling us about our evolutionary history", The Washington Post cites Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist.

It has a tinge of colour, however.

As Ultima Thule is seen to rotate hints of the topography can be perceived. Image credit NASA  Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

"Everybody knows it as Ultima Thule", he noted. "Our current theory as to why Ultima Thule is red is the irradiation of exotic ices". This color is likely owed to the fact that the icy object was irradiated by high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays over billions of years.

Since Tuesday's close approach, New Horizons is already 3 million miles (5 million kilometers) deeper into that mysterious region. "We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000mph (51,000km/h) and all that had to happen just right", the SwRI scientist said.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said "What you're seeing is the first "contact binary" ever explored by spacecraft". The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft.

The best picture so far of the planetesimal, featured in the first half of this article, was taken while New Horizons was only 28,000 km above it. The picture has been taken with a resolution of 140 meters per pixel and is taken from a distance of 17,000 miles.

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