STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Ultima Thule is really two objects that form a space 'snowman'

On Tuesday, the first image of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule taken by the New Horizons spacecraft reve...

Posted: Jan 3, 2019 4:15 AM
Updated: Jan 3, 2019 4:15 AM

On Tuesday, the first image of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule taken by the New Horizons spacecraft revealed a bowling pin. On Wednesday, more distinct and color images revealed a snowman.

Mission scientists said the first science data transmitted back from New Horizons has shown Ultima Thule to actually be two separate objects joined together, making it the first contact binary to be explored by a spacecraft.

Aviation and aerospace industry

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Celestial bodies and objects

Planets and moons

Science

Space and astronomy

Space industry

Spacecraft and satellites

The object has two lobes, with the larger one now taking the name Ultima and the smaller becoming Thule.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day. 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. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

The Kuiper Belt is the edge of our solar system, part of the original disk from which the sun and planets formed.

The new color image also revealed it to be definitively red, like the top of Pluto's moon Charon. This is consistent with other irradiated objects that are in the Kuiper Belt, Carly Howett, mission co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, said Wednesday.

Images also revealed that the two lobes have a mottled appearance. Though they do not appear to have impact craters, there could be hills and ridges, with the neck connecting the two lobes being one of the steepest slopes.

However, more will be revealed as more data comes in. This first data is a result from New Horizons approaching Ultima Thule with the sun behind the spacecraft, making it hard to see whether there are craters.

So how did Ultima Thule form? The mission scientists believe that 4.5 billion years ago, a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies coalesced. Eventually, these two bodies remained, slowly spiraling closer until they touched, forming Ultima Thule. Gravity is holding them together.

This means we're truly seeing one of the first planetesimals, or objects that went on to form planets.

"It's a time machine to time zero," said Jeff Moore, the mission's geophysics lead investigator from NASA Ames.

A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule. The object itself is as dark as potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute. The brightest areas on the surface of Ultima Thule reflect only about 13% of the sunlight that reaches it -- an incredibly small amount, given that it's 4 billion miles from the sun.

All of this information came from "far less than 1% of the data on New Horizons that has reached the ground," said Alan Stern, mission principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

Stereo analysis and subsequent imaging will be available Thursday.

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 2,200 miles of it and providing a better look at the surface. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects -- but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

West Lafayette
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 74°
Kokomo
Clear
69° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 69°
Rensselaer
Scattered Clouds
66° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 66°
Fowler
Scattered Clouds
66° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 66°
Williamsport
Clear
69° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 69°
Crawfordsville
Scattered Clouds
69° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 69°
Frankfort
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 68°
Delphi
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 72°
Monticello
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 72°
Logansport
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 72°
Warm-up again with increasing humidity & risk of storms.
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 75862

Reported Deaths: 3069
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion16088730
Lake7688278
Elkhart492685
Allen4002163
St. Joseph357883
Hamilton2829104
Vanderburgh202213
Hendricks1927108
Cass18029
Johnson1789119
Porter135539
Clark128749
Tippecanoe123811
Madison100665
LaPorte93130
Howard91365
Kosciusko86812
Bartholomew81747
Floyd80948
Marshall79323
Monroe76631
Delaware74552
Dubois70812
Vigo69911
Noble68829
Boone68746
Hancock68339
Jackson5965
Warrick58830
Shelby56527
LaGrange56310
Grant52930
Dearborn51228
Morgan49334
Clinton4444
Henry40620
Wayne38510
White37611
Montgomery35921
Lawrence35227
Harrison34823
Decatur34132
Putnam3128
Daviess27720
Miami2772
Scott27210
Jasper2552
Greene25434
Franklin24615
DeKalb2384
Gibson2314
Jennings22712
Steuben2133
Ripley2138
Carroll1962
Fayette1947
Perry18713
Posey1790
Starke1787
Wells1742
Orange17424
Fulton1722
Wabash1703
Jefferson1672
Knox1610
Whitley1556
Tipton14312
Washington1421
Sullivan1381
Spencer1373
Clay1245
Huntington1243
Randolph1244
Newton12010
Adams1092
Owen991
Jay920
Rush854
Pulaski811
Fountain742
Brown741
Blackford652
Ohio656
Benton640
Pike590
Vermillion580
Switzerland530
Parke511
Martin480
Crawford450
Union410
Warren241
Unassigned0206

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events