New Horizons reveals a 'snowman' at the edge of the solar system


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.

New Horizons scientists on Wednesday released photos of the most distant object ever reached by a space probe, revealing it had the form of a snowman.

A new picture returned from U.S. space agency NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows the little world to be two objects joined together - to give a look like a "snowman".

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. The larger of the pair, which scientists named Ultima, is three times bigger than the smaller one, dubbed Thule. 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". It has a rotation period of about 15 hours.

Another camera captured a color view, revealing that Ultima is definitely red, said Carly Howett, a New Horizons science team member from the Southwest Research Institute.

"What we think we're looking at is the end product of a process that took place at the very beginning of the formation of the solar system", Moore said.

The New Horizon spacecraft did a close flyby of the most distant object yet visited by any spacecraft on New Year's Day.

The New Horizons team was also able to pin down Ultima Thule's size more accurately.

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The New Horizons team combined a low-resolution color image of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, with sharper black-and-white imagery to produce the composite view at right.

The only issue with the flyby so far has nothing to do with the spacecraft or the object but rather the Ultima Thule nickname that the mission, with NASA's concurrence, applied to the object.

Flight controllers in Maryland declared success 10 hours after 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 (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other, researchers said.

Scientists hope to have New Horizons (now moving at 32,000 mph) fly by a second Kuiper Belt object before heading into interstellar space, the fifth manmade object (following two Pioneer craft and two Voyagers) to leave the Solar System.

"This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward", said Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist.

This image made available by NASA shows images with separate colour and detail information, and a composited image of both, showing Ultima Thule.

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule".