NASA Releases First Close-Up Pictures of Icy Object Past Pluto

The first clear image of Ultima Thule shows the object is a contact binary

Ultima Thule appears in an image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on Jan.1, 2019, from a range of 18,000 miles.

The first detailed images beamed back from the USA 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. Ultima Thule is what NASA describes as a "contact binary", meaning it is made up of two previously separate objects that are now bound together as one.

So far, scientists have learned that Ultima is red, with a rotational period of roughly 15 hours. The two objects were slowly pulled together by gravity, creating the "bilobed" object with a distinct "neck".

"Ultima is unique", New Horizons' Principal Investigator Alan Stern said.

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.

End to end, the world measures 19 miles (about 31 kilometers) in length.

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"Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form-both those in our own Solar System and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy", he added.

After the news conference, Stern told GeekWire that Ultima Thule and other nicknames relating to 2014 MU69's features would give way to formal names to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but it's too early to say which names would be submitted to the IAU by the New Horizons discovery team.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Dr. Ralph Semmel, Director of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "Just because some bad guys once liked the term, we're not going to let them hijack it". In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and the following year selected it for New Horizon's extended mission. The pea shape is now no more relevant, and ultimately the scientists have been to the conclusion that the shape of the Ultima Thule is like that of a snowman.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. "The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close".

"I'm surprised that more or less picking one Kuiper belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", Stern says. More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered at 8 p.m. for a look.

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