MU69 revealed as a contact binary in first New Horizons data returns

Jo Lloyd
January 3, 2019

Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft.

This image taken by New Horizons' Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of 2014 MU69 so far. The larger of the pair, which scientists named Ultima, is three times bigger than the smaller one, dubbed Thule.

The world is in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt. Mission scientists are working on additional funding. The smaller sphere is "Thule", measuring 14 kilometres across. "What you're seeing is the first contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft", Stern said today at a press conference here at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

While much higher-resolution images will provide a better sense of the topography and geography of 2014 MU69, what is now known is that the bottom, larger lobe ("Ultima") contains changes in elevation greater than one kilometer and that the upper, smaller lobe ("Thule") may contain a plateau feature.

Though they do not appear to have impact craters, there could be hills and ridges, with the neck connecting the two lobes being one of the steepest slopes.

This image from video made available by Nasa shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time".

Perhaps scientists will spot another faint, distant object, and send New Horizons that way.

If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how our planet and its neighbours formed. The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working.

It will take as long as 20 months for scientists to download and process all the data collected during their brief encounter with Ultima Thule, scientists said.

But Ultima is a further 1.5 billion km further out.

"The primary association of Thule and Ultima Thule are with travel and exotic places and cold places - it's associated with travel gear, it's associated often with distant places in Greenland", he told Newsweek.

Mr Stern added: "It's going to just get better and better". Its nearly nonexistent reflectivity didn't exactly help the New Horizons team as they sought it out.

Data and images will continue to come in throughout the day, with more announcements to come soon. This is how Ultima Thule is now showing itself to NASA and the rest of the planet from 17,000 miles out: The bowling pin of two days ago has now morphed into a snowman - or BB-8, as the Twitterverse is saying. "If that proposal is accepted, we would start a search for [another] object that we could fly by", Stern said. Stern said the spacecraft will resume transmitting in mid-January.

New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin serves up a clay model of 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, after a briefing focusing on the icy object's snowman shape.

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