Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind


The NASA scientists announced this on Monday that the asteroid looked like that of a snowman.

"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

New Horizons, designed by and managed from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, has been speeding toward the edge of the solar system for 13 years.

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 ½ years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto. A distant object now actually feels real to everyone here on Earth. Altogether, it will take almost two years for all of New Horizons' data to reach Earth. One day, they touched. With the onslaught of the photos they are now elucidating the larger sphere Ultima and the miniature called Thule. NASA hopes it will help to illuminate how planets were created four and a half billion years ago, both in our solar system and beyond.

"Ultima is unique", New Horizons' Principal Investigator Alan Stern said. For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher. The object was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and is approximately 19 miles in diameter at its widest point.

Ultima Thule, a name that was nominated by 40 people, won the public poll. Titled "New Horizons", the track is described as May's "personal tribute" to the spacecraft and its 12-year journey. The object consists of two fused-together spheres, one three times bigger than the other.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote. He joked: "If you had a collision with another vehicle at those speeds you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms". "It's a snowman if it's anything at all", Stern said amid laughter from the gathered media.

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"We are seeing a physical representation of the beginnings of planetary formation, frozen in time", Moore said.

"Different kind of rocks", he said.

Since the first approach photographs were released (which were pixilated and blurry), the New Horizons team has released new images from the spacecraft that show Ultimate Thule in color and greater detail.

Perhaps scientists will spot another faint, distant object, and send New Horizons that way.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

What has got scientists all a-quiver is that the appearance of Ultima Thule seems to confirm theories of planetary accretion, which has specks of dust colliding to form objects with sufficient gravity to attract each other. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets.

This means we're truly seeing one of the first planetesimals, or objects, that went on to form planets. Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist, said the object has a rotation period of approximately 15 hours.