New Horizons reveals a 'snowman' at the edge of the solar system
03 January, 2019, 07:26 | Author: Ann Santiago
The small world, 6.5 billion km from Earth, is actually two objects joined together.
"It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world at a news conference.
The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said the picture was the "most detailed image of the farthest object ever explored by a spacecraft". At right, the colour has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the colour uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes.
And the images confirmed what observations using the Hubble Space Telescope had suggested as New Horizons scientists scouted Ultima Thule - that, like parts of Pluto and its moon Charon, it has a rusty hue. Scientists speculated that it could be single, likely elongated object, or two objects closely orbiting each other.
The last time we saw Utlima Thule, it was a blur against the blackness of space, something not almost convincing enough of its existence.
"What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space", Stern said. The larger sphere, which the team has now dubbed "Ultima", is 12 miles (19 km) wide, while the smaller one, "Thule", measures 9 miles (14.5 km) across. He joked that if they were cars, "you probably wouldn't fill out the insurance form".
The longevity of New Horizon's plutonium battery may even allow it to record its exit from the Solar System.
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"This is the first object we can clearly tell was born this way, and didn't evolve to look this way", Stern said.
Researchers say that the so-called "contact binary" could help yield clues about how other planets formed. Moore said that the shape of that cometary nucleus could also be explained by activity as cometary ice sublimates. The left image is a combination of near infrared, red and blue channels, taken by the spacecraft's low-resolution Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined. That could be explained if the neck contains fine-grained particles that settle there from both lobes.
The images have been taken from as close as 17,000 miles, though it will take days for the high-resolution photos to be uploaded to Earth, given the bandwidth limitations of moving data across the span of the entire solar system.
New Horizons will get even more up close and personal with Ultima soon - as soon as tomorrow - with at least one image expected to come in at nearly 200 miles per pixel. New Horizons is so far away it can only send data at about 2,000 bits per second, so it took time to get the new, higher-quality images.
Also on its way back to Earth are spectral data collected by the spacecraft.
The object itself is as dark as potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute. In just the last day some members of the public expressed reservations about the name because of ties to Nazi ideology.
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Whether Ultima's surface is heavily cratered and if it has a rich surface geology - like that of Pluto - remains to be seen. Temperatures here are close to absolute zero because the region is so far from the sun. "Think of it.
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