Published: Thu, January 03, 2019
Research | By Sheri Schwartz

NASA’s New Horizons discovers Ultima Thule is not one object, but two

NASA’s New Horizons discovers Ultima Thule is not one object, but two

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all of its observations of Ultima Thule. With any luck, upcoming projects like the James Webb Space Telescope will further expand our understanding of the universe.

NASA got 2019 started off with a bang, successfully piloting the New Horizons spacecraft on a flyby of Ultimate Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt, over 4 billion miles from Earth (over 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). This image confirms that Ultima Thule (official designation (486958) 2014 MU69) is a "contact binary" object, the first one ever explored up close.

It kind of resembles the bottom and middle structures of a traditional snowman as one section is about twice the size of the other.

This image taken by New Horizons' Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of 2014 MU69 so far.

The first high-resolution images of a 21-mile tall snowman-shaped object that lies one billion miles beyond Pluto have been released by Nasa. New images from varying perspectives - captured as the probe moved passed the object - will bring out shadows on the object surfaces, revealing its contours more clearly.

Early analysis from New Horizons' camera suggests that Ultima Thule, based in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, is the result of two bodies that are now fused together.

New Horizons spent 13 years travelling to Ultima Thule's location at the heart of the Kuiper Belt. For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.

"We think what we're looking at is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft, and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system", Mr Moore said.
The image on the left is an enhanced color image, the center image is a higher resolution image of the object and the right image shows the color overlaid onto the higher resolution image.

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.

The object is composed of two distinct lobes in contact with each other, with a 3-1 ratio in terms of their respective size. The bowling pin image is "so 2018", joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute. "Eventually, 2 larger bodies remained & slowly spiraled closer until they touched, forming the bi-lobed object we see today".

"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. New Horizons has been releasing blurry photos of the object and has detected some weirdness about it, as we've reported-there didn't seem to be any variation in the amount of light it reflected. The full set of data will be a long time coming - trickling across the solar system over the next 20 months.

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