NASA releases first clear images of distant Kuiper Belt object

Image released Jan 1 taken from 500,000 km showing an bowling pin shape. Newer images show a contact binary

Have a look at the first decent image of Ultima Thule as New Horizons was still 18,000 miles away.

At a news conference Wednesday, scientists working with Nasa's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Tuesday. The scenario to form such a body is that probably numerous small planetesimals came together in the outer solar system in a small region early on, the two of them more or less nudged together, gently fused by gravity.

According to the BBC, he said: "Everything that we're going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing - is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we've gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can't tell us because they're either large and evolve, or they are warm". But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

The first detailed images beamed back from the United States 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.

Our first look at Ultima Thule was little more than a smudge. To astronomers' surprise, images from the New Year's Day flyby reveal that Ultima Thule is a "contact binary", which means it consists of two connected spheres that were previously separated but now joined together.

This photo is a dramatic improvement on the images we've had in the days before the flyby, and it answers one of the biggest questions scientists have had about the asteroid: is it one object or two?

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again", said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Taken at the Mission Operations Center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel Maryland on Jan. 1 2019

"As we get closer and closer to the target the sun illumination will change", said Jeff Moore, from NASA's Ames center. 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 Thule was formed by the joining of objects orbiting around each other.

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. "10, No. 4", Ultima Thule was just across the border from the Choctaw Nation in Arkansas and had a post office, blacksmith shop, general store and a gin.

"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 fantastic", Stern said.

We now know the basics of this odd object, the most distant solar system body ever explored by a spacecraft. It's not fish or fowl.

Carly Howett, another researcher of the mission, noted that "we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", perhaps due to irradiation of ice.

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