New Horizons images reveal odd shape of Ultima Thule space object

NASA's far-flung New Horizons spacecraft has revealed for the first time a clear picture of Ultima Thule, the icy object it flew by shortly after midnight on New Year's Day.

The city-size object is made up of a pair of roughly spherical lobes, mission scientists said at a press conference Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to discuss the new findings.

The scientists dubbed the larger lobe "Ultima," the smaller one "Thule."

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New Horizons spacecraft's flyby of Ultima Thule
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New Horizons spacecraft's flyby of Ultima Thule
Esta imagen proveída por la NASA el miércoles, 2 de enero del 2019, muestra fotos con diferennte información sobre color y detalles y una imagen compuesta de las dos, muestra Ultima Thule, un diminuto objeto espacial 1.600 millones de kilómetros (1.000 millones de millas) más allá de Plutón. (NASA vía AP)
This image from video made available by NASA on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (NASA via AP)
New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, speaks about new data received from the New Horizons spacecraft during a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, at the APL in Laurel, Md. The spacecraft survived the most distant exploration of another world, a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles away that looks to be shaped like a peanut or bowling pin. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP)
Guests applaud New Horizons team members after the they received signals from the New Horizons spacecraft that it is healthy and it collected data during a fly-by of Ultima Thule, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, at the Mission Operations Center at the APL in Laurel, Md. The spacecraft survived a journey to near the tiny, icy object called Ultima Thule, about 4 billion miles from Earth. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
New Horizons team members and guests watch a live feed of the Mission Operations Center (MOC) as the team waits to receive confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Ultima Thule, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP)
This image made available by NASA on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 shows the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (NASA via AP)
New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory speaks about new data received from the New Horizons spacecraft during a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, at the APL in Laurel, Md. The spacecraft survived the most distant exploration of another world, a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles away that looks to be shaped like a peanut or bowling pin. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP)
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, left, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., left gives a high-five too New Horizons mission operations manager Alice Bowman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), after the team received signals from the spacecraft that it is healthy and collected data, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, at the Mission Operations Center at the APL in Laurel, Md. The spacecraft survived a journey to near the tiny, icy object called Ultima Thule, about 4 billion miles from Earth. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, speaks during an overview of the New Horizons Mission, Monday, Dec. 31, 2018 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. New Horizons was on course to fly past the mysterious, ancient object nicknamed Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday.(Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP))
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, center, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., celebrates with other mission team members after they received signals from the New Horizons spacecraft that it is healthy and collected data during the flyby of Ultima Thule, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, at the Mission Operations Center at the APL in Laurel, Md. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
LAUREL, MD - DECEMBER 31: In this handout provided by NASA, New Horizons project manager Helene Winters of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory speaks at a press conference prior to the flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons spacecraft, Monday, December 31, 2018 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
LAUREL, MD - DECEMBER 31: In this handout provided by NASA, Brian May, lead guitarist of the rock band Queen and astrophysicist discusses the upcoming New Horizon's flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, Monday, December 31, 2018 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
Ultima Thule, 20-mile-long (32-km-long) space rock, taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, taken at 5:01 GMT on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), is shown in this image released by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, U.S., on January 2, 2019. Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT
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"The bowling pin is gone," Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the mission's principal investigator, said, referring to the shape scientists had preliminarily ascribed to the object. "It's a snowman if it's anything at all."

The images were obtained by cameras aboard the spacecraft as it sped by the "bi-lobed" object, which orbits the sun about 1 billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. At that distance, it takes radio signals more than six hours to travel back to Earth.

Stern said only about 1 percent of the data collected by the spacecraft had been beamed back to Earth. In coming days, the scientists will be getting images with greater detail.

The best image revealed Wednesday has a resolution of about 130 yards per pixel, for a total of 2,800 pixels in the image. In the next few days, we'll see images with resolutions four times finer with a full megapixel of data in the image.

The new images show that Ultima and Thule isn't a bowling pin- or peanut-shaped object, as scientists had previously thought. They also show that the surfaces of the lobes are as dark as soil, with some regions reflecting as much as 13 percent of sunlight and others as little as 6 percent.

The sunlight falling on the object is about 2,000 times dimmer than it is on Earth.

There are hints of hills but no craters on Ultima and Thule, though the scientists said we'll know more about that on Thursday, when stereo imaging becomes available.

The object is reddish in color, perhaps because it's made up of methane ice or nitrogen ice has been reddened by chemical reactions. We should find out on Thursday the surface composition of the object, pending a review of data already beamed back from a spectrometer aboard the spacecraft.

It will take a total of 20 months for all the data to reach the scientists on Earth, in part because New Horizons is just one of the many spacecraft being monitored by the giant antennas that make up NASA's Deep Space Network.

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