NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity’s most distant exploration of another world. Flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, received word from the spacecraft on Tuesday, 10 hours after the middle-of-the-night encounter.
As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by the distant Ultima Thule object early on New Year’s Day, it snapped some shots of the never-before-seen space rock. Those photos continue to be received by scientists down here on Earth.
In some photos from Tuesday, the object looked like a bowling pin. Wednesday, however, scientists released better photos that showed the rock has a bizarre but familiar shape: Yes, it looks like a reddish snowman.
“The bowling pin is gone. It’s a snowman!” lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world at a news conference Wednesday.
Ultima Thule consists of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 20 miles across. The larger one is “Ultima” while the smaller one is “Thule.”
Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other and stuck together.
Gravity holds the two rocks together, NASA said.
Its remarkable appearance, unlike anything that’s been seen before, illuminates the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago.
“New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system,” Moore added. “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.”
The rock is roughly 1 billion miles away from Pluto – making it the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.
With the inelegant official name of “2014 MU69,” Ultima Thule was first discovered in 2014 by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA said the nickname Ultima Thule means “beyond the borders of the known world.”
Contributing: Brett Molina, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
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