NASA space probe 'phones home' in landmark mission to solar system's edge

A NASA spacecraft 4 billion miles from Earth yielded its first close-up pictures Wednesday of the most distant celestial object ever explored, depicting what looks like a reddish snowman. During its approach, New Horizons came within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule and took images using its high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), revealing more details about its odd peanut shape.

The mission team has chose to call the larger lobe "Ultima" and the smaller lobe "Thule".

He added that if there was any shock from the Ultima Thule fly-by, it was how fortunate the scientists were for finding it in the Kuiper Belt.

Since there are two separate lobes to the object, the team felt they needed to come up with a name for each.

Carly Howett, New Horizons co-investigator, said: "We can definitively say that Ultima Thule is red".

"This flyby is a historic achievement", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. This is how Ultima Thule is now showing itself to NASA and the rest of the planet from 17,000 miles out: The bowling pin of two days ago has now morphed into a snowman - or BB-8, as the Twitterverse is saying.

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all of its observations of Ultima Thule.

The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

Ultima Thule was first discovered by a telescope in 2014, and prior to New Horizons' flybly, scientists only had a blurry image of the object, which resembled a bowling pin.

There is some dispute among scientists, though, about whether Ultima Thule is the first contact binary seen. "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

The photographs of Ultima Thule, captured by the spacecraft, were revealed at a press conference on Wednesday.

"I'm surprised that more or less picking one Kuiper belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", Stern says.

Scientists think New Horizons has enough fuel to visit one more object in the Kuiper belt within the next decade.

Ultima Thule is likely similar to some comets and asteroids that scientists have studied as they pass through the inner solar system.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

What will New Horizons show us when it transmits an even more HD image to Earth?

"We are seeing a physical representation of the beginnings of planetary formation, frozen in time", Moore said. More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered in the evening for a look.

  • Valerie Cook