Most distant celestial object explored looks like snowman

Here's Our First Image Of Ultima Thule, The 'Most Distant Object Ever Visited By A Spacecraft' - Digg

That's because the New Horizons spacecraft, which has now traveled some 4 billion miles through our Solar System, finally made its flyby of the most distant object ever studied up close.

Ultima Thule was once two separate space rocks that joined together, known as a contact binary.

Composite of two images (left) taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and an artist's impression (right) of Ultima Thule's appearance. New Horizons provided the first images of Pluto sharp enough to reveal surface details like vast plains of frozen nitrogen and methane dunes.

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of tiresome brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.

Ultima Thule likely formed as a rotating cloud of small, icy objects started to combine. And the metaphors write themselves! "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said. The New Horizons team thought it was an apt term for MU69, the spacecraft's next target beyond Pluto.

The first detailed images beamed back from the USA agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery. The area has hundreds of thousands of objects that could hold the keys to understanding the beginning of our solar system.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead Jeff Moore said in a statement.

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The body is roughly 19 miles long and completes its own rotation in about 15 hours.

"We think what we're looking at is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft, and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system", Mr Moore said.
Now, with signals finally coming back from New Horizons, NASA can rest easy.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006.

The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 km (85,000 mi) at 04:08 am UTC on January 1st, 2019. "What you're seeing is the first contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft", Stern said today at a press conference here at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

With the obvious warning that with only 1% of the data in-hand that some of this will change, here's what we now know about 2014 MU69 based on those initial science returns.

The object looked sort of looked like a fuzzy bowling pin. "What we're saying is that the lighting geometry on approach with the Sun behind the spacecraft's back makes it hard to see whether the features on the surface are craters are not".

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