NASA has released the first high-definition images of Ultima Thule - a 20-mile long space rock, a billion miles beyond Pluto. Alan Stern, the lead investigator for the mission, said, "It's two completely different objects that are now joined together".
Additionally, the New Horizons team can now definitely say that-just as the images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope several years ago tentatively predicted-Ultima Thule's hue is a toasty brownish-red.
"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a NASA briefing.
"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space".
Objects like Ultima Thule, on the other hand, remain in the icy outer crust of our disc-like solar system. The mission scientists believe that 4.5 billion years ago, a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies coalesced.
The 140-meter-resolution image, taken 28,000 kilometers from MU69 half an hour before the spacecraft's closest approach, reveals two bumpy, reddish spheres, with one three times the volume of the other.
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Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said. At right, the colour has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the colour uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes.
"You can see they're clearly two separate objects that have come together", said Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist. Shortly after the encounter, New Horizons beamed back a handful of initial images showing a bowling pin-shaped object. New images from varying perspectives - captured as the probe moved passed the object - will bring out shadows on the object surfaces, revealing its contours more clearly.
He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule".
The color photo was then combined with the image taken by the LORRI camera (which has almost five times the spatial resolution of the MVIC) to produce a detailed image that shows the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. The object may also be a close contact binary asteroid, with a close satellite. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand.
Demonstrating a disappointing lack of imagination, scientists have dubbed the larger sphere (12 miles across) "Ultima" and the smaller (nine miles across) "Thule". "We know this is how many objects like this form".
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.