Nasa snaps the first high-res images of 'snowman' Ultima Thule

Cristina Cross
January 4, 2019

Check it out below, followed by a photo of the Queen guitarist with Alan Stern, the principal New Horizons mission investigator who personally requested May's musical talents.

In March, NASA and the New Horizons team announced their decision to use Ultima Thule as a nickname for the second stop on their solar system tour, which is officially known as 2014 MU69, a formula that designates when it was discovered. But Stern said that the phrase Ultima Thule is hundreds, if not a thousand, years old, and is apropos because it means "beyond the known universe" in Latin.

Less than 1 percent of all the data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby has been downlinked to Earth.

Scientists already expected that the 19-mile-long Ultima Thule had two lobes to it, and even wondered if it was a pair of objects orbiting each other.

After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.

History has been made at the New Horizons operations headquarters at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab on January 2, 2019. Southwest Research Institute leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning.

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This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and it's the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. But the signal to confirm the spacecraft's location did not reach Earth until 10 hours later. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said.

Nasa said that the goal of the New Horizons mission was to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt to study "the origins and outskirts of our solar system". But the scientists cautioned that could be because of the high angle of the available sunlight at the time initial images were recorded by New Horizons' cameras, and that the topography, possibly including hills or ridges, will be better revealed by future images. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".

These images, though, are not of that absolute closest approach. Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft.

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

The appearance of Ultima Thule, unlike anything human have seen before, illuminated the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago, said NASA.

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