New Horizons Scientists Double Down On 'Ultima Thule' Nickname Despite Nazi Associations

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

"In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, today New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our Solar System".

"It's two completely different objects that are now joined together", said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission.

This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it made by the New Horizons spacecraft, on August 16, 2018. New Horizons provided the first images of Pluto sharp enough to reveal surface details like vast plains of frozen nitrogen and methane dunes.

Scientists can also now infer some geological properties of Ultima Thule.

NASA shared a graphic showing how an object like Ultima Thule forms: "as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine". But Stern said that the phrase Ultima Thule is hundreds, if not a thousand, years old, and is apropos because it means "beyond the known universe" in Latin.

The distant object that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past January 1 is now taking shape as a body - or bodies - unlike any visited by a spacecraft to date. The larger sphere, which the team has now dubbed "Ultima", is 12 miles (19 km) wide, while the smaller one, "Thule", measures 9 miles (14.5 km) across. Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It's been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.

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The ice world also is a relatively dark object, reflecting very little light. Over time, dust and pebbles clumped together to form the object's two lobes, which eventually combined to form a single body.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a wayback machine to time zero", Moore said. That's right, as New Horizons passed this object, NASA had beamed radar pulses at it, to bounce off at just the right moment, so that New Horizons would pick up the radar reflections.

The less-red areas near 2014 MU69's neck - the connection point between the two lobes - carries a higher albedo or reflectivity than the rest of the so-far-observed rockey world, indicating the presence of fine grain particles in the neck region.

The contact binary shape of Ultima Thule is consistent with models of the formation of the Kuiper Belt. It appears not to have any impact craters.

The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, had "28,000 pixels on the target ... which way beats six pixels", Stern joked referring to the fuzzy, bowling-pin picture that was released the day before.

We may never, never reach them. "In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule - and the solar system", she said.

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