Saturday, 23 March, 2019

NASA says icy object past Pluto looks like reddish snowman

NASA  Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute NASA Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Southwest Research Institute
Andrew Wong | 05 January, 2019, 06:43

The scientists running NASA's New Horizons mission showed off the first detailed images Wednesday of an object 4 billion miles away in space.

From then on, the mission team was of the mind that Ultima Thule was actually a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an "extreme prolate spheroid") or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching (a close or contact binary).

In a live press conference earlier today, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, Deputy Project Scientist Kathy Olkin, New Horizons Co-Investigator Carly Howett, and New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Team Lead Jeff Moore (from NASA Ames) revealed the newest hi-def image of the Kuiper Belt object.

The first post-flyby images beamed down from New Horizons depict Ultima Thule as a pockmarked, two-tiered snowman.

The 140-meter-resolution image, taken 28,000 kilometers from MU69 half an hour before the spacecraft's closest approach, reveals two bumpy, reddish spheres, with one three times the volume of the other. He explains that Ultima Thule appears to be a basic planetary building block that was left over and is still lying around "the backyard of the solar system".

Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. Frozen in time, the object may allow NASA to collect data that it hopes can give us further insight into the history and formation of our solar system.

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

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An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin. At right, the color was draped over the black and white image. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation", said Stern. The discovery required the use of the Hubble Space Telescope, because ground-based observations had not found a Kuiper belt object in the zone of space that can be accessed by New Horizons.

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.

The images are obviously very low in resolution, and it's not immediately clear if or when we'll get a better glimpse of the rock, but New Horizons still has a lot of data to beam back to Earth. The mission team named the larger object "Ultima" and the smaller one "Thule".

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really incredible", Stern said.

He added: "It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science".

Scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth.

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