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Meet Ultima AND Thule: First high-resolution images of most distant object ever visited reveal it is red and contains TWO objects ‘resting on each other’ like a snowman

  • NASA has released the first clear images of Ultima Thule after the historic New Horizons flyby this week 
  • New Horizons made its closest approach to Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. (ET) Jan 1st, 4 billion miles from Earth  
  • At 10:31am the following morning the craft ‘phoned home’ to confirm flyby was a success   
  • It will take 20 months to get all data, and highest resolution images will not be beamed down until February 
  • First clear images show it’s two objects resting on one another, appearing like a snowman or Star Wars’ BB-8 

2 January 2019

Humanity has captured its first clear look at an object in the faraway Kuiper Belt.

NASA revealed the first images and science data from this week’s historic flyby in a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Far from the blurry ‘bowling pin’ we saw with New Horizons’ first look when it beamed its signal home early morning on January 1, the new images reveal Ultima Thule is snowman-shaped red world with two distinct lobes – one stacked atop the other.

This arrangement is what’s known as a contact binary, the experts say – and, it’s now the first a spacecraft has ever explored.

Humanity has finally captured its first clear look at an object in the faraway Kuiper Belt. NASA revealed the first images and science data from this week's historic flyby in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. The scientists say it's two objects that appear to be 'resting' on each other, held together by gravitational pull in what's known as a contact binary

Humanity has finally captured its first clear look at an object in the faraway Kuiper Belt. NASA revealed the first images and science data from this week’s historic flyby in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. The scientists say it’s two objects that appear to be ‘resting’ on each other, held together by gravitational pull in what’s known as a contact binary

Photographing Ultima Thule – and traveling more than four billion miles through space to get there – is a ‘technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in spaceflight,’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a press conference Wednesday.

‘It’s really only the size of Washington D.C., and about as reflective as garden variety dirt,’ Stern explained, noting that the object wasn’t even known to the world prior to the summer of 2014.

‘We were ultimately chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour.’

The best images of the new batch were captured when New Horizons was about 17,000 miles (27, 000 kilometers) from Ultima Thule.

And, the pictures will only get better from here.

The scientists say the two lobes of Ultima Thule came together in a ‘gentle’ accretion process, with two objects bound together by each other’s gravity.

The primitive world was ‘born’ this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the strange shape, the team explains.

‘New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system,’said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead.

Far from the blurry 'bowling pin' we saw with New Horizons' first look when it beamed its signal home early morning on January 1, the new images reveal Ultima Thule is snowman-shaped red world with two distinct lobes. This arrangement is what's known as a contact binary, the experts say ¿ and, it¿s now the first a spacecraft has ever explored

Far from the blurry ‘bowling pin’ we saw with New Horizons’ first look when it beamed its signal home early morning on January 1, the new images reveal Ultima Thule is snowman-shaped red world with two distinct lobes. This arrangement is what’s known as a contact binary, the experts say – and, it’s now the first a spacecraft has ever explored

'That bowling pin is gone,' Principal Investigator Alan Stern said, referencing the previous, blurry image. 'It's a snowman, if anything at all'
Stern revealed the last picture the craft took before the flyby, and promised better images later in the week

The New Horizons images reveal Ultima Thule is two objects conjoined through ‘gentle’ accretion. The previous image, at a much lower resolution, suggested it had a bowling pin shape. ‘That bowling pin is gone,’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern said Wednesday. ‘It’s a snowman, if anything at all’. Twitter users have also pointed out that it looks like the Star Wars droid, BB-8

‘We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time,’ Moore says.

‘Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy.’

Thanks to the close observations, we now know the small, oddly shaped world is ‘two objects conjoined,’ Stern says.

‘That bowling pin is gone,’ the leader of the New Horizons joked, in reference to the first blurry images sent home after the flyby. ‘It’s a snowman, if anything at all.’

Based on the New Horizons observations so far, the scientists say Ultima has a ‘very regular’ rotation period, at about 15 hours.

The scientists say the two lobes of Ultima Thule came together in a 'gentle' accretion process, with two objects bound together by each other's gravity. The primitive world was 'born' this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the strange shape, the team explains

The scientists say the two lobes of Ultima Thule came together in a ‘gentle’ accretion process, with two objects bound together by each other’s gravity. The primitive world was ‘born’ this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the strange shape, the team explains

Jubilant NASA scientists celebrated on New Year’s Day after confirmation their New Horizons probe reached the solar system’s outermost region, flying close to a space rock 20 miles long and billions of miles from Earth on a mission to gather clues about the creation of the solar system.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the ‘third zone’ in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 a.m. this morning ET – but NASA did not receive confirmation it was a success until 10:31 a.m.

Alice Bowman, the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager, known as ‘MOM’ received the updates from mission engineers, who one by one called in their status as green.

‘We have a healthy spacecraft, we have just completed the most distant flyby,’ she said.

Engineers ‘locked onto’ the signal, and data began to be downloaded from a tracking system in Madrid.

Alice Bowman, the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (right), known as 'MOM' received the updates from mission engineers, who one by one called in their status as green. she is seen here high-fiving Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.

Alice Bowman, the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (right), known as ‘MOM’ received the updates from mission engineers, who one by one called in their status as green. she is seen here high-fiving Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR NEW HORIZONS?

While NASA has said goodbye to a few of its veteran craft recently, including Cassini and Kepler, New Horizons’ work may not be ending any time soon.

‘The spacecraft is very healthy, it has fueling power to go on for 15, 20 years,’ Prinicipal Investigator Alan Stern told Dailymail.com.

‘And, we’d like to do another flyby. We don’t leave the Kuiper Belt until 2027, 2028.

‘So after we get all the data, that’s what we’re going to do. Work on our next exploration phase.

‘We’re happy about this, it’s an amazing piece of American workmanship this little spacecraft that’s doing so well.’

‘Everything looks great, we are looking forward to getting down the science data. We did it again.’

‘I’m really liking this 2019 thing so far,’ said Mission Controller Alan Stern, who said he had got a good night’s sleep after celebrating the flyby last night.

‘New Horizons did spectacularly.’

Stern revealed the last picture the craft took before the flyby, and promised better images later in the week.

‘Overnight tonight, the science team will be analyzing the first high resolution images, and we’ll show you those tomorrow.

‘Its 35x50km, and its an irregular shape.

‘It could be bi-lobate, with asymetric lobes, or it could be these are two things in orbit – and tomorrow we will known which is the case.’

‘Everything we are seeing now happened about six hours ago,’ said Mark Holdridge, the Encounter Mission Manager.

‘There’s a lot of anxious people staring at screens in Mission control’.

Detecting Ultima Thule's Size and Shape on Approach: At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows.

Detecting Ultima Thule’s Size and Shape on Approach: At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons’ high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule’s size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist’s impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima’s spin axis is indicated by the arrows.

Jubilant NASA scientists were celebrating this morning celebrating after confirmation their New Horizons has reached the solar system's outermost region, flying close to a space rock 20 miles long and billions of miles from Earth on a mission to gather clues about the creation of the solar system.

Jubilant NASA scientists were celebrating this morning celebrating after confirmation their New Horizons has reached the solar system’s outermost region, flying close to a space rock 20 miles long and billions of miles from Earth on a mission to gather clues about the creation of the solar system. Left, Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission

Alice Bowman (right), the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager, known as 'MOM' received the updates from mission engineers, who one by one called in their status is green. 'We have a healthy spacecraft, we have just completed the most distant flyby,' she said.

Alice Bowman (right), the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager, known as ‘MOM’ received the updates from mission engineers, who one by one called in their status is green. ‘We have a healthy spacecraft, we have just completed the most distant flyby,’ she said.

Now that it is entering the peripheral layer of the belt, containing icy bodies and leftover fragments from the solar system’s creation, the probe will get its first close-up glance of Ultima Thule, a cool mass shaped like a giant peanut, using seven on-board instruments.

The first image of Ultima Thule’s shape was taken during the spacecraft’s approach but clearer pictures are not expected for some time as it can take several hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

The mysterious, ancient target is 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from Earth and is in the Kuiper Belt.

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home.

So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered, blew party horns and jubilantly waved small U.S. flags again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons’ closest approach to Ultima Thule. 

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday’s official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won’t be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

‘We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away,’ said the project’s lead scientist who led the countdown to the close encounter, Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. ‘Think of it. We’re a billion miles farther than Pluto.’

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969.

‘Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the ‘giant leap’ of Apollo’s lunar missions,’ Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million mission, was expected to hurtle to within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.

Its seven science instruments were to continue collecting data for four hours after the flyby.

Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of its success. It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

New Horizons has spent more than a decade hurtling through the solar system since it launched on Jan 19, 2006 and passed Pluto in 2015. Its messages take to reach us, despite them traveling at the speed of light

New Horizons has spent more than a decade hurtling through the solar system since it launched on Jan 19, 2006 and passed Pluto in 2015. Its messages take to reach us, despite them traveling at the speed of light

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past the mysterious object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday. The latest images of the object, released yesterday, reveal an elongated shape

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the mysterious object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday. The latest images of the object, released yesterday, reveal an elongated shape

Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons.

Traveling at 31,500 mph (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle.

It’s a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the distance and the considerable unknowns, and because the spacecraft is older now.

‘I can’t promise you success. We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft,’ Stern said at a news conference Monday. ‘By tomorrow, we’ll know how we did. So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons.’

The risk added to the excitement.

Queen guitarist Brian May, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, joined the team at Johns Hopkins for a midnight premiere of the rock ‘n’ roll song he wrote for the big event.

‘We will never forget this moment,’ said May who led the New Year’s countdown. ‘This is completely unknown territory.’

The flyby was fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second. Seven instruments on board recorded high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition

The flyby was fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second. Seven instruments on board recorded high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby. Pictured, May at Mission Control.

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May – who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics – will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby. Pictured, May at Mission Control.

Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss history in the making.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons’ itinerary.

Deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, a frigid expanse beyond Neptune that is also known as the Twilight Zone, Ultima Thule is believed to date back 4.5 billion years to the formation of our solar system. As such, it is ‘probably the best time capsule we’ve ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it,’ Stern said.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

NASA¿s New Horizons spacecraft spotted its next flyby target earlier this year from more than 100 million miles away. In the image, Ultima is enveloped in countless stars, appearing as just a tiny speck amidst the bright spots. The yellow box shows its predicted location

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft spotted its next flyby target earlier this year from more than 100 million miles away. In the image, Ultima is enveloped in countless stars, appearing as just a tiny speck amidst the bright spots. The yellow box shows its predicted location

WHAT IS ULTIMA THULE?

The Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Ultima Thule might not be a single object. Scientists say it's possible it's two or many objects. An artist's impression is pictured 

Ultima Thule might not be a single object. Scientists say it’s possible it’s two or many objects. An artist’s impression is pictured

When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot.

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of Jan. 1 – 12:33 a.m. EST.

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. If a solo act, it’s likely 20 miles (32 kilometers) long at most.

Envision a baked potato. ‘Cucumber, whatever. Pick your favorite vegetable,’ said astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins.

It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometers to 20 kilometers) in diameter.

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth.

-Associated Press 

The composition won’t be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last almost two years.

‘Who knows what we might find? … Anything’s possible out there in this very unknown region,’ said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute. ‘We’ll find out soon enough.’

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern told Dailymail.com: ‘It’s going to take us 20 months to get all the data back, because data transmission speed is slow from that distance.

‘We’ll be sending back data about Ultima Thule for all of 2019 and most of 2020, until August or September,’ Stern says.