Published: Fri, January 04, 2019
Science | By

Photos reveal origin of space rock Ultima Thule, resembling red snowman

Photos reveal origin of space rock Ultima Thule, resembling red snowman

For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.

This isn't the end of 2014 MU69's naming process: A formal title will need to be proposed to the International Astronomical Union.

The shape indicates that a rotating cloud of innumerable tiny objects must have coalesced into two balls that slowly spiraled closer and closer together until they gently touched, forming the object out beyond Pluto that scientists have nicknamed "Ultima Thule", which means "beyond the known world".

The first detailed images beamed back from the U.S. agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery. But now, "that image is so 2018", Stern quipped during the press conference.

According to Jeff Moore, New Horizons' geology and geophysics team lead, Ultima Thule's two lobes-now named Ultima (the larger) and Thule (the smaller)-might have formed from a throng of small, icy bodies. Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation.

"Meet #UltimaThule! What you're seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft", tweeted Nasa. That supports the idea that billions of years ago, amid the swirling chaos of the early solar system, matter collected in larger and larger clumps until their gravity was strong enough to develop into planets and moons.

"This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together".

Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

How it was taken: The picture above was taken on January 1 2019 from a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers), using the spacecraft's two cameras: the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It's been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.

Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher-resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", Moore said. He added: "We've never seen anything like this before. It's something that's completely different". "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it".

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