Published: Thu, January 03, 2019
Entertaiment | By Minnie Bishop

Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

In its original use, the term Ultima Thule is ancient, first used during the Roman Empire and also popular during the medieval period, referencing lands that are both very distant and very cold - which the Kuiper Belt object of course is. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima.

The picture came after flight controllers said they had had success in the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, an astounding 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.

At a press conference Tuesday, the New Horizons mission's principal investigator S. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said, "I don't know about you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far". Scientists say no impact craters could be seen in the latest photos.

The first image of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft earlier this week revealed a bowling pin. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

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

Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when icy, pebble-size pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months. "Eventually, 2 larger bodies remained & slowly spiraled closer until they touched, forming the bi-lobed object we see today".

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A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule. But better images should yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 51,000km/h, the spacecraft made its closest approach within 3,500 kilometres of the surface of Ultima Thule. New Horizons has been releasing blurry photos of the object and has detected some weirdness about it, as we've reported-there didn't seem to be any variation in the amount of light it reflected.

It's neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather "a primordial planetesimal".

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

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