After flying by the most distant object ever explored, our New Horizons spacecraft beamed back the first pictures and science data. These new images, taken from as close as 17,000 miles, revealed that this object is a “contact binary,” consisting of two connected spheres. End to end, Ultima Thule measures 19 miles in length. The team has dubbed the larger sphere “Ultima” and the smaller sphere “Thule”. The team says that the two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender. It likely formed over time as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine. Eventually, 2 larger bodies remained and slowly spiraled closer until they touched, forming the bi-lobed object we see today.
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. Data from the New Year's
Day flyby will continue to arrive over the next weeks and months, with much higher resolution images yet to come.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
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