CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA – The cosmic snowman visited by NASA on New Year's Day is everywhere and has a bright "collar" between its two melted spheres.
These are the latest details of Ultima Thule, the most remote object ever explored.
A close-up picture made by NASA's NASA spacecraft, just before the closest approach on January 1 and released on Thursday, shows very small pockets of Ultima Thule. They are less than 0.7 kilometers away. There is also a much larger, round depression of the smaller lobe, considered the snowman's head. Scientists do not know if these are crashing craters or holes.
Categorized as a contact binary, the approximately 32-kilometer, reddish Ultima Thule has bright and dark patterns. The brightest place is where the two shovels connect. Scientists say that varied coloration can help explain how the ancient site was formed, as the solar system appeared 4.5 billion years ago.
Leading scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute promises even better shots next month. It will take almost two years for New Horizons to transmit all data from fields that are about 6.4 billion kilometers.
Such a long distance takes more than six hours, while the radio signals travel once. New Horizons is now more than 30.5 million kilometers from Ultima Thule.
Launched in 2006, the spacecraft became the first visitor to Planet Pluto in 2015. Ultima Thule was its second goal. A third destination – even deeper in the so-called Kaiper belt of the frozen fringes of our solar system – may be possible in the 2020s.