NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

Muriel Hammond
January 5, 2019

But puzzling through the origins of the Solar System using only the final products, like our own Earth, is like trying to discern a recipe from a loaf of fully baked bread: numerous components have already been substantially, and often irreversibly, altered by heat and time.

If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how Earth and its neighbors formed. After it coasted through, NASA selected Ultima Thule as the next observational target and set a course.

This "new kind of world", as described by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, illuminates the early stages of our Solar System, 4.5 billion years ago. It has a rotation period of about 15 hours.

The "snowman", named Ultima Thule, orbits an area known as the Kuiper Belt. This is the farthest most reached cosmic body ever observed by a spaceship. This is what is known as a "binary", or more specifically a "contact binary".

The team also shared a color photograph of Ultima Thule (shown below), which was taken at 04:08 am UTC (12:08 am EDT) on January 1st, 2019, when the probe was 137,000 km (85,000 mi) from Ultima Thule.

"The term "Ultima Thule" was many centuries old ... and is a wonderful name for exploration".

As for its shape, scientists say there are two possibilities. Once engaged, the pair never parted; it appears their union has survived the billions of years since.

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. It's a snowman. Stern joked the bowling pin image is so 2018.

In a press conference, Stern elaborated on what scientists have discovered from preliminary images.

The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.


Just one day has made a startling difference in how we view this mysterious Kuiper Belt object. It is likely a fragment that coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago and that has remained in the deep freeze of the solar system's Kuiper belt ever since. The new images and data confirmed the icy space rock's classification as a contact binary.

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In an animation created by NASA using three of the images we can see the oblong shape of Ultima Thule, which NASA describes as looking like a bowling pin. It has some brighter regions, and some darker ones. And it comes with a vivid choker of brightness encircling its slight neck.

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images.

The color is thought to be the result of processed volatile ices that have been irradiated.

"The primary association of Thule and Ultima Thule are with travel and exotic places and cold places - it's associated with travel gear, it's associated often with distant places in Greenland", he told Newsweek.

These tantalizing tidbits are only the beginning.

Data and images from New Horizons will continue to trickle in for the next 20 months so there could be some incredible discoveries and reveals on the way, but for now the team is happy with spacecraft's performance and its important milestone.

However, more will be revealed as more data comes in.

"I had no idea Ultima Thule had Nazi connotations", he wrote.

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