05 January, 2019
"Meet Ultima Thule!" said lead investigator Alan Stern, doing little to hide his joy as he revealed a new sharper image of the cosmic body, taken at a distance as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometres) with a resolution of 140 meters per pixel.
The latest images transmitted by the New Horizons probe, as it continues the 20-month process of sending Earthwards all that lovely science data collected during its flyby, show Ultima Thule is actually a "contact binary" consisting of two connected spheres.
It is likely an icy fragment that coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago and that has remained in a deep freeze of the solar system's Kuiper belt ever since, some 4 billion miles from the sun.
A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule.
"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote.
Color may seem trivial, but for the New Horizons team, it's critical information that will help the researchers determine what ices and minerals decorate the object's surface, says Silvia Protopapa, a co-investigator of the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission.
That data will be sent back over the next year and a half, because the mobile reception isn't exactly great on the further reaches of our solar system.
Though Ultima Thule formed a long time ago, it remains pristine, seemingly unmarked by craters.
After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.
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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", Moore said.
"Now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", said Carly Howett, a New Horizons planetary scientist. "[This] has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".
"We have far less than 1 per cent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons, already down on the ground".
And the objects adjoin at a narrow neck, but evidence suggests they are held together by gravity and not some other force, Stern said.
Ultima Thule is one of hundreds of thousands of space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit.
New Horizons was launched in 2006 on a mission to fly by Pluto.
The last time we saw Utlima Thule, it was a blur against the blackness of space, something not almost convincing enough of its existence.
The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth.
"Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let 'em hijack it", Stern said.