Sunday 24 February 2019

Faraway ‘space snowman’ is pitted and has bright ‘collar’

Ultima Thule is the most distant object ever explored.

(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)

By Marcia Dunn, Associated Press

The “space snowman” visited by Nasa on New Year’s Day is pitted all over and has a bright “collar” between its two fused spheres.

These are the newest details to emerge about Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever explored.

A close-up picture – taken by Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft right before the closest approach on January 1 – shows lots of little pits on Ultima Thule. They are less than half a mile across.

There is also a much bigger, circular depression on the smaller lobe, considered the snowman’s head. Scientists do not know if these are impact craters or sinkholes.

Categorized as a contact binary, the approximately 20-mile-long, reddish Ultima Thule has light and dark patterns. The brightest spot is where the two lobes connect.

Scientists say the varied shading may help explain how the ancient object was formed, as the solar system was emerging 4.5 billion years ago.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute promises even better pictures during the next month.

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to transmit all the data from the flyby, four billion miles away.

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(PA Graphics)

At such a vast distance, it takes more than six hours for radio signals to travel one way. New Horizons is already more than 19 million miles beyond Ultima Thule.

Launched in 2006, the spacecraft became the first visitor to the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015. Ultima Thule was its second target.

A third destination — even deeper inside the so-called Kuiper Belt on the frozen fringes of our solar system — could be possible in the 2020s.

Press Association

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