NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

After a day in which pictures of a distant space world made it look like a peanut, Nasa has unveiled the first photo from a flyby of Ultima Thule.

However, the new images - taken from as close as 27,000 kilometres on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres, resembling a snowman.

The first detailed images beamed back from the U.S. agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery.

Project scientists have named the larger sphere, judged to be about 12 miles across, "Ultima", and the smaller lobe, about 9miles across, "Thule".

It's also a glimpse 4.5 billion years back in time, to the origins of the solar system, because the distant planetesimal has nearly certainly orbited unchanged in the frozen Kuiper Belt since it formed. Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data" that is stored on the spacecraft from the flyby, which at its closest - about 2,200 miles - hurtled past Ultima Thule at a speed of 32,000 mph at 10:33 p.m. MST on Monday.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern paid tribute to the skill of his team in acquiring the image as New Horizons flew past the object at 3500km at closest approach.

John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the folks responsible for ensuring the New Horizons probe shot past Ultima Thule at just the right time, said the images provide new insight into how planets are formed.

When asked about the Nazis' use of the term, Showalter confirmed that he was aware of the usage and said that the New Horizons team and NASA, including its legal department, decided that the original meaning was more prominent and outweighed the less savory connotations.

Flyby data solved one of Ultima's mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".

Ultima Thule lies in the Kuiper Belt, the punishingly cold region of the Solar System past Neptune. More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered in the evening for a look.

Ultima Thule in colour. But here, the spacecraft was looking down at one of the poles, so essentially the same side of Ultima Thule was facing the spacecraft the entire time.

Latest News