Boulder-born New Horizons reveals new landscape in outer solar system

Boulder-born New Horizons reveals new landscape in outer solar system

Boulder-born New Horizons reveals new landscape in outer solar system

This image taken January 1 by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft.

"It's two completely separate objects that are now joined together", says Stern, who explained that the larger lobe is now being referred to as "Ultima" and the smaller one is called "Thule".

Signals confirming the spacecraft is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations centre at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) about 10 hours after New Horizons' closest approach to the object.

A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule.

It's an wonderful discovery, especially considering that the possibility of Ultima Thule being a binary duo had been floated a number of times over the course of the lengthy New Horizons mission.

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images.

During the run-up to today's news conference, a buzz broke out on Twitter over the fact that the term "Ultima Thule", which in ancient times denoted a place beyond the known world, became a part of Nazi mythology.

It zoomed past Pluto - collecting numerous photos and reams of information about the now dwarf planet - in July 2015, and reached Ultima Thule early on New Year's Day.

Scientists believe that around 4.5 billion years ago, just millions of years after the formation of the solar system, dust and pebbles clumped together to form the object's two lobes - Ultima and Thule.

On Tuesday established on premature fuzzy images captured the day before scientists said that Ultima Thule mirrored a bowling pin.

There is some dispute among scientists, though, about whether Ultima Thule is the first contact binary seen.

Less than 1 percent of all the data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby has been downlinked to Earth. New Horizons's journey into the solar system's past has just begun.

It consists of two nearly spherical lobes, one with about three times the volume of the other.

Ultima Thule, or more formally 2014 MU69, is a member of the Kuiper Belt, a ring-shaped region of icy objects orbiting the sun. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, the mission's geology manager. For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.

Clearer images and more confident assessments of Ultima Thule's surface composition and topography are expected in the immediate days ahead.

New Horizons reached Pluto in July 2015 and revealed an incredible planet, rich in detail and structure.

Stern expressed surprise, and elation, that after picking the mission target "more or less" out of the hat, "that we were able to get as big a victor as this, that is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".

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