January 3 UPDATE: Ultima Thule is not the first contact binary visited by a human spacecraft. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission previously explored a comet of this shape between 2014 and 2016 — the famous comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which also originated in the Kuiper Belt. “Ultima is, however, the first contact binary in the Kuiper Belt ever explored up-close,” NASA clarified today via Twitter.
After much anticipation, NASA has finally released the first clear photos of Ultima Thule, the most distant object to ever be visited by a man-made spacecraft.
Buzzed by the New Horizons probe on New Year’s Day, this far-off icy world lies deep within the Kuiper Belt — some 1 billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto, as previously reported by the Inquisitr.
Located at a staggering distance of nearly 4 billion miles from Earth, Ultima Thule has been shrouded in mystery ever since it was discovered in 2014. Nestled at the edge of the solar system, this ancient relic dating back to the formation of the planets was initially believed to be a binary asteroid — made up of two bodies in orbit of one another.
However, it turns out that this small planetary body is something else altogether — a new type of object now observed for the very first time. According to NASA, Ultima Thule is what scientists call a contact binary — the first one to ever be explored by a human spacecraft.
The enigmatic object is nothing like your typical asteroids or comets. Instead of being shaped from a single object, Ultima Thule was born from two separate celestial bodies, strung together sometime in the solar system’s distant past. This icy world is actually composed of two spheres that fused together billions of years ago, coalescing into a snowman-shaped celestial body, notes Phys.org.
The revelation came after the space agency unveiled a couple of fresh photos of Ultima Thule, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft shortly before its closest approach to the mysterious object on January 1. The new findings are consistent with an earlier, fuzzier photo released yesterday, which suggested that the icy body was shaped like a bowling pin, as reported by the Inquisitr.
Meet #UltimaThule! What you’re seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft. This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together. Watch for more @NASANewHorizons science results https://t.co/ZuxLDtzW9c pic.twitter.com/uF9VfgN4Fh
— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
The brand-new Ultima Thule images were unveiled today during a press briefing which aired between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. EST on both NASA Live and the Johns Hopkins APL YouTube channel. The incredible snapshots represent the first detailed images of Ultima Thule, shedding new light on the shape and color of this enthralling celestial object.
Captured by New Horizons at 11:08 p.m. on December 31, 2018, from a distance of 85,000 miles away, the first color view of Ultima Thule was taken about 1.5 hours before the spacecraft zoomed past its flyby target. The exciting photo shows that the contact binary dons a splendid reddish color.
The second photo released today by NASA showcases Ultima Thule in much more detail than ever before. Snapped a mere 30 minutes ahead of the close encounter on January 1, the much-awaited pic was taken from a range of 18,000 miles, uncovering the true structure of this icy Kuiper Belt object.
Ultima Thule measures a full 21 miles in length. The larger sphere that makes up the contact binary stretches for 12 miles and was dubbed “Ultima” by the New Horizons team. Meanwhile, the smaller sphere — the “head” of the snowman, as it were — is 9-mile-long and was nicknamed “Thule,” mission officials from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland, announced today on their website.
A sharper version of the photo was shared by JHUAPL on Twitter soon after the live webcast, highlighting Ultima Thule’s structure in ever greater detail.
THIS is #UltimaThule.
The image taken by @NASANewHorizons – shown in its original version (left) & sharpened version (on right) – is the most detailed image of the farthest object ever explored by a spacecraft. https://t.co/gItPsMvbPC @NASA pic.twitter.com/i7rDBURNrw
— Johns Hopkins APL (@JHUAPL) January 2, 2019
The mission’s team hypothesized that the two spheres which make up the contact binary were joined together in the early days of the solar system. Before that, “Ultima” and “Thule” were originally two separate objects that slowly wafted near one another, “colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender.”
#UltimaThule used to be 2 separate objects. It likely formed over time as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine. Eventually, 2 larger bodies remained & slowly spiraled closer until they touched, forming the bi-lobed object we see today: https://t.co/ZuxLDtzW9c pic.twitter.com/FwWDAaAdey
— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
“New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time,” said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead.
“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.”
The team is due to release more data from the epic New Year’s Day flyby of Ultima Thule during a second media briefing, scheduled to air tomorrow at 2 p.m. EST.
“In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we’ll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule — and the solar system,” said Helene Winters, New Horizons Project Manager.
Commenting on the most recent developments of the New Horizons mission, principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, described the January 1 flyby as “a historic achievement.”
“Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space. New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation.”