Just over a day after NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Ultima Thule, scientists have revealed their preliminary findings of the distant object.
The first detailed images beamed back from the U.S. 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.
After successfully completing its Pluto flyby in 2015, the agency redirected the spacecraft to visit an even more distant object known as Ultima Thule.
"It's two completely separate objects that are now joined together", says Stern, who explained that the larger lobe is now being referred to as "Ultima" and the smaller one is called "Thule".
Ultima Thule in colour. Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation.
"Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region", John Spencer, deputy project scientist for New Horizons, told reporters on Monday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
New Horizons will send back data pertaining to Ultima Thule's geology, composition, and potential atmospheric conditions, providing a nifty look at a 31-km-long proto-planetoid and hopefully answering a few questions about how the larger masses in our solar system came to be.
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"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system".
"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote.
Images taken during the spacecraft's approach - which brought New Horizons to within just 3,500 kilometres of Ultima - revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 32 by 16 kilometers. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule based on the image at left. With the arrival of the photos, they are now calling the bigger sphere Ultima and the smaller one Thule.
"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far", lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause.
The New Horizons spacecraft's picture of an icy object 4 billion miles from Earth became a lot clearer today, and took on a surprisingly familiar shape.
An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time. Signals confirming the spacecraft had survived the encounter and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations centre at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland nearly exactly 10 hours later, Earth Sky reported. "It's going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science". For now, researchers have plenty of Ultima Thule data to decipher.
The sun is 1,900 times fainter on Ultima Thule than it is on a sunny day on Earth.