Photos reveal ancient origins of distant space rock Ultima Thule, resembling a frosty red snowman
- The object 6.4 billion kilometres away has been identified as a ‘contact binary’, two objects that have squashed together into one
- Many more photographs taken by the New Horizons spacecraft are expected soon
Nasa has released photos of its fly-by of Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, revealing its ancient origin as two round objects squashed together.
The pictures reveal the icy planetary body to resemble a red snowman.
Meet #UltimaThule! What you’re seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft. This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together. Watch for more @NASANewHorizons science results https://t.co/ZuxLDtzW9c pic.twitter.com/uF9VfgN4Fh
— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
“Meet #UltimaThule! What you’re seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft,” tweeted Nasa.
“This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together.”
Nasa confirmed Tuesday that the spacecraft – New Horizons – completed its flight past Ultima Thule at 12.33am on January 1, Eastern Time. It is 6.4 billion km (4 billion miles) from Earth.
The new imagery shows the pockmarked space rock measures about 33km (20 miles) in length, seen from distances ranging between 137,000km and 28,000km (85,000 miles and 17,400 miles). Many more photos are expected to be released soon. The spacecraft came within about 3,520km (2,200 miles) of Ultima Thule.
“This is what leadership in space exploration is all about,” said Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a post to Twitter. He also said that New Horizons was the first spacecraft to directly explore an object “that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system.”
Ultima Thule sits in the Kuiper Belt, about 1.6 billion km past Pluto.
Team members and guest at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, gathered to celebrate both the new year and the fly-by of New Horizons, which launched in 2006.
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”. The spacecraft had already included the first reconnaissance of Pluto, completing its closest approach to the planet in 2015.