Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft made a flyby past a snowman-shaped object in the outer solar system earlier this week in a sighting that has the scientific community buzzing.
The object, called Ultima Thule by scientists, is composed of two icy spheres that joined together in a shape reminiscent of a snowman. Located in the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of dwarf planet Pluto, Nasa estimates the object is about 21 miles (33 kilometres) long and 10 miles (16 kilometres) wide.
The object is the most distant object ever explored in Earth’s solar system. At 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, it is about 1.5 billion kilometres farther away than Pluto.
The flyby occurred on January 1st at 12:33 am EST when the Nasa spacecraft sped by the object at more than 32,000 miles (51,000 kilometres) per hour. At 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometres) away, the spacecraft’s closest point to the bi-lobed ice planet is comparable to the width of the continental United States.
And while the visit to the object is over, its scientific investigation has just begun. “Almost all of the data analysis lies in the future," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, according to a Nasa blog update. "Those of us on the science team can't wait to begin to start digging into that treasure trove."
Data transmission from the spacecraft is paused for about a week while it passes behind the sun as seen from here on Earth. Data transmission will resume on January 10 and start a 20-month download of the spacecraft's data observations.
Nasa’s blog update from January 3rd added these new details about Ultima Thule:
● Data collected so far provides no evidence that Ultima Thule has an atmosphere or any orbiting rings or satellites larger than one mile in diameter.
● The colour of Ultima Thule matches the colour of other observed worlds in the Kuiper Belt, according to telescopic measurements.
● The two lobes of Ultima Thule — the first Kuiper Belt contact binary visited — are nearly identical in colour. This aligns with observations of binary systems that have not come into contact with each other, but rather orbit around a shared point of gravity.
The New Horizons spacecraft was designed, built, and is operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland under the management of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The science team, payload operations, and planning is done by the Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, Texas.