Boulder-born New Horizons reveals new landscape in outer solar system

"Now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", said Carly Howett, a New Horizons planetary scientist. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length.

During his science presentation, Stern also referred to the two lobes of the space rock as "Ultima" (the larger lobe) and "Thule" (the smaller one). That means the object is slightly shorter but a bit wider than was believed just yesterday.

"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", he added.

"This flyby is a historic achievement,"Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement".

So far, no moons or rings have been detected, and there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos, though there were a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges, scientists said.

"This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together".

Ultima orbits the Sun in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt.

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"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really awesome", Stern said.

"New Horizons swept down over Ultima Thule in a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in space flight", said Stern in a livestream of the press conference on NASA's New Horizons site, and the shot of an elated (which is still an understatement) New Horizons team he put up onscreen spoke for itself.

Musician Brian May has released the song he wrote in honour of NASA's New Horizons mission, which has successfully received information from a space object 6.4 billion kilometres away. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".

The only issue with the flyby so far has nothing to do with the spacecraft or the object but rather the Ultima Thule nickname that the mission, with NASA's concurrence, applied to the object.

The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 km (85,000 mi) at 04:08 am UTC on January 1st, 2019.

The spacecraft will continue sending images and other data over the next 20 months. "We know this is how many objects like this form".

Ultima Thule likely formed as a rotating cloud of small, icy objects started to combine. Stern said the New Horizons team would start writing scientific papers next week, based on the data already in hand, and nearly certainly propose another mission extension to NASA by 2020. Olkin said the initial data will focus on specific bands that could help scientists identify water ice or other volatiles.

  • Douglas Reid