NASA has shared images of Ultima Thule, a space rock roughly 20 miles long, which is floating in space around 1 billion miles beyond Pluto and four billion miles from Earth.
The image was sent from NASA’s New Horizons vessel – an unmanned spacecraft that was first launched on January 19, 2006. The vessel is currently 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, and was 3,500km away from Ultima Thule when it took the pictures.
Ultima Thule is the most distant object from Earth ever studied by mankind, and is believed to be ‘two separate objects that are now bound together’.
Posting to Twitter, NASA wrote:
Meet Ultima Thule! What you’re seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft. This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together.
Meet #UltimaThule! What you’re seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft. This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be 2 separate objects that are now bound together. Watch for more @NASANewHorizons science results https://t.co/ZuxLDtzW9c pic.twitter.com/uF9VfgN4Fh
— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
Ultima Thule used to be 2 separate objects. It likely formed over time as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine. Eventually, 2 larger bodies remained & slowly spiraled closer until they touched, forming the bi-lobed object we see today
#UltimaThule used to be 2 separate objects. It likely formed over time as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine. Eventually, 2 larger bodies remained & slowly spiraled closer until they touched, forming the bi-lobed object we see today: https://t.co/ZuxLDtzW9c pic.twitter.com/FwWDAaAdey
— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
NASA are using New Horizons to travel as far out in the Solar System as possible, and believe observing objects such as Ultima Thule will unveil vital information about the formation of the planets we recognise today.
In a press briefing about New Horizons’ images, NASA wrote:
Think of New Horizons as a time machine that has brought us back to the very beginning of the solar system, to a place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets.
Jeff Moore, New Horizons geology and geophysics team lead, said, via Sky News:
New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time.
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.
It took six hours and eight minutes to transmit the images from NASA’s unmanned spacecraft back to Earth, which were picked up by an antenna in Madrid, Spain.
New Horizons has reportedly acquired several gigabytes-worth of photos and observations of the 20-mile rock, and it will send these findings back to Earth over a period of time. As it takes so long to transmit data, however, it is estimated to take until September 2020 to receive all the findings, according to BBC.
Alan Stern, principle investigator of the New Horizons mission, said:
Everything that we’re going to learn about Ultima – from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing – is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we’ve gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can’t tell us because they’re either large and evolve, or they are warm. Ultima is unique.
Ultima Thule is located in the Kuiper belt of the Solar System – a band of frozen material which orbits the Sun over 1.5 billion kilometres further out than Pluto, which New Horizons visited in 2015. The team are also hoping the spacecraft can visit more objects in the Kuiper belt within the next 10 years.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.