NASA's New Horizons releases first images of entire new world

NASA's New Horizons releases first images of entire new world

The first detailed images beamed back by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft after its historic flyby of Ultima Thule - the most distant and possibly the oldest space object ever explored - show that the icy "worldlet" resembles a reddish snowman, the U.S. space agency said on January 3.

The latest view from NASA's New Horizons probe shows an icy object known as 2014 MU69 or as Ultima Thule to consist of two balls of icy material stuck together.

"We could not be happier", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said.

Ultima Thule's surface reflects light about as much as "garden variety dirt", he said, as the sun's rays are 1,600 times fainter there than on Earth.

The pictures from Ultima Thule were revealed on Wednesday. That created the two bodies seen at Ultima Thule: a larger one, dubbed simply "Ultima", that is 19 kilometers across, and a smaller one, "Thule", 14 kilometers across.

That's where Ultima Thule comes in: It looks to be a partial conglomeration of uncooked space dough-a premature mashup that could have served as the basis for a planet, but didn't.

So far, scientists have learned that Ultima is red, with a rotational period of roughly 15 hours.

An artist's rendition of the icy world known as Ultima Thule, as seen at the flyby event at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

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Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.

The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.

New images and data returned by the New Horizons probe prove Ultima Thule is a snowman-shaped contact binary, the first to be explored by a spacecraft. Color images show that Ultima Thule is reddish. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima".

As the new year arrived here on Earth, the team at NASA began receiving the first data from the New Horizons spacecraft confirming it had reached a mysterious object on the outer edge of our solar system. Signals confirming the spacecraft had survived the encounter and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations centre at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland nearly exactly 10 hours later, Earth Sky reported.

But now "it's a world", Stern said - with shape, character and implications for our understanding of planetary science.

Color may seem trivial, but for the New Horizons team, it's critical information that will help the researchers determine what ices and minerals decorate the object's surface, says Silvia Protopapa, a co-investigator of the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission.

"We are seeing a physical representation of the beginnings of planetary formation, frozen in time", Moore said. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

However, this is just the start, and scientists have promised more details soon.

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