NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which zoomed past the frigid faraway object has released first images of Ultima Thule. The historic imagery reveals that the 21-mile-long (33 kilometres) Ultima is a "contact binary" composed of two spherical lobes. Ultima Thule is the farthest and potentially oldest cosmic body ever observed by a spacecraft. “That image is so 2018... 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.
After flying by the most distant object ever explored, @NASANewHorizons beamed back the 1st pictures & science data from #UltimaThule. This data is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system & those orbiting other stars: https://t.co/cp8lE03Cl5 pic.twitter.com/CUaOK1LZBG— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
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New Horizons swept past Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt on January 1. Signals confirming the spacecraft had survived the encounter and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations centre at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland almost exactly 10 hours later, Earth Sky reported.
The scientists have decided to call the larger lobe "Ultima", and the smaller lobe "Thule". The volume ratio is three to one.
Jeff Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator from Nasa's Ames Research Centre, said the pair would have come together at very low speed, at maybe 2-3km/h. He joked: "If you had a collision with another car at those speeds you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms."
On 26 June 2014, Ultima Thule was discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope during a preliminary survey to find a suitable Kuiper belt object for the New Horizons probe to fly by. The discovery required the use of the Hubble Space Telescope, because ground-based observations had not found a Kuiper belt object in the zone of space that can be accessed by New Horizons.
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"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer. This flyby marks a first for all of us – APL, NASA, the nation and the world – and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point,” said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel.