NASA spacecraft sends images of icy object past Pluto

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

Ultima Thule reportedly does not fit the union's criteria. This has, in turn, set off a buzz about an Ultima Thule much closer to home, in Sevier County to be precise.

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin. "It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control in Laurel.

"Everything that we're going to tell you [today] is just the tip of the iceberg", Dr Stern said.

In a lengthy update by the New Horizons team, the group boasts that New Horizons sent back a signal to its handlers letting them know that it had filled its on-board recorders with a wealth of science data that it collected as it zoomed past Ultima Thule.

Ultima Thule is about 33 kilometers long (21 miles) and is located in the Kuiper Belt, a "twilight zone" of small icy and rocky objects that lies beyond Neptune and is only faintly illuminated by the sun.

Slowing turning, they eventually touched at each other at what mission geology manager Jeff Moore called an "extremely slow speed" - maybe just one to a few miles per hour. One full rotation takes around 15 hours (give or take an hour).

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The dark object is formed of two spheres which have combined to form one celestial object. They reveal Ultima Thule is actually two objects stuck together. It is the first contact binary NASA has ever explored. Is it two icy objects orbiting each other, or a single "peanut"? Scientists say no impact craters could be seen in the latest photos.

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. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.

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.

It's neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather "a primordial planetesimal".

He added: "These are the only remaining basic building blocks in the backyard of the solar system that we can see that everything else that we live on, or receive through our telescopes, or visit with our spacecraft, were formed from". The "neck" between the two lobes is particularly bright, perhaps because small, reflective particles tumbled into its crevasse, said Cathy Olkin, a deputy project scientist and planetary scientist at SwRI. It's not fish or fowl.

New Horizons captured the images from a distance of around 80 000km from the surface of Ultima Thule.

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