New Horizons Reveals Ultima Thule

The first sharp picture of the "city-sized world" the New Horizons probe travelled 6.5 billion kilometres to explore has been unveiled, to the delight of NASA.

The tiny, icy object resembles a snowman in the photo, which is just the first of a whole host of data that the space agency hopes to receive back. "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.

"This flyby is a historic achievement", Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator said.

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. He said Ultima Thule was selected as 2014 MU69's informal nickname because its ancient meaning provided a "wonderful meme for exploration".

New Horizons conducted its successful flyby of Ultima Thule, which is classed as a minor planet, on Tuesday.

"And I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it", he said, prompting a round of applause from team members and guests in the APL auditorium.

If confirmed, this configuration could represent a precious snapshot of planetary formation in action, supporting the idea that the massive, orbiting bodies in our inner solar system assembled in part through the rapid coalescing of pebbles and dust.

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule". At around 4.1 billion miles from Earth, it takes roughly six hours for radio signals from the probe to reach Earth.

In 2006, an fantastic spacecraft was launched towards the dwarf planet Pluto, known as New Horizons.

With such a bland designation, astronomers came up with a very interesting name for this tiny object: "Ultima Thule", a Latin metaphor for a place that is beyond the borders of the known world.

Demonstrating a disappointing lack of imagination, scientists have dubbed the larger sphere (12 miles across) "Ultima" and the smaller (nine miles across) "Thule".

As well as being the most distant object reached, Ultima Thule may be the oldest celestial object to be studied by a spacecraft.

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system. As such, scientists still aren't entirely sure how the planets of the Solar System got their start. 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.

"We aren't saying there are craters on it or not", Stern said, noting that greater shadowing in subsequent photos from other angles will better tell the tale of its surface features.


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