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NASA's new horizons unveil the geological Frankenstein that became Ultima Thule



THE WOODLANDS, Texas – Less than three months after the New Horizons probe swept past a distant, cold space rock, scientists begin to compile the story of how this object, called Ultima Thule, originated.

In a series of scientific presentations held today (March 18) at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, mission scientists shared new data on the topography and composition of space rock, refining scenarios for the creation of the object.

"Every single observation we planned worked as planned," said Alan Stern, chief investigator for the New Horizons mission and a planet scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, at the team's first presentation. "We had a 1

00 percent successful flyby."

Related: Ultima Thule Flyby the New Horizons in Pictures

The wealth of data that the spaceship could muster provided secrets and hypotheses about the distant object of the Kuiper belt that scientists had not even discovered when New Horizons launched. Specifically, the team was eager to assemble the object officially designated as 2014 MU69 .

Shortly after the flyby, the team confirmed that MU69 In fact, two objects are in what scientists call a contact binary. Continuous analysis of New Horizons high-resolution black and white photographs suggests that the two halves of the object were formed separately and the larger lobe, referred to as Ultima, is the result of many much smaller objects, such as Dippin & # 39 ;. clump together. Dots.

"In a sense, Ultima has a fairly simplified geology, a bit like Frankenstein here," said Jeff Moore, New Horizons scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, during a presentation. "Thule has much more to do here." In particular, this smaller lobe has the largest feature of the object, a depression that the team called Maryland. (New Horizons is operated in this state by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.)

<img alt = "A new map created by the New Horizons team seems to show the many different boulders surrounding an object called Ultima Thule 19659010] A new map of the New Horizons team appears to show the many different boulders forming the object called Ultima Thule

(Photo: © NASA / Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University / Southwest Research Institute / ESA)

However, when the team deals with color images, it is more difficult to see evidence of this aggregate structure MU69s with an overwhelming red surface does not show some variations in color that match the surface features however, the hypothetical small geological subunits.

"You definitely see some correlation m There are logical correlations with these lumps that could be in earlier stages of accretion, "said Will Grundy, an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, during his presentation. "They do not look obviously different."

The new findings also affect the convergence of the two parts of MU69. When the team scrutinized the object's fugue, they found no sign that a violent collision had distorted the rock. Instead, the scientists believe that the two halves of the object formed separately and were held together long enough to synchronize their longest and shortest dimensions – such as two adjacent pancakes – which were then very slowly and with a Speed ​​of about 9.8 feet (3 meters) per second were touched.

"You can do this yourself, you can run against a wall," said William McKinnon, New Horizons partner and a planet scientist at Washington University in St. Louis presentation. "It's a very gentle situation."

Although the MU69 probe's probe was incredibly short, mission scientists will receive new data from New Horizons for more than a year. This is due to the amount of observations he has been able to make and the slow data transfer rate that the probe is capable of at such a great distance from Earth. The combination means that scientists will spend a long time grappling with puzzles about the object.

"Ultima Thule is more than remarkable," said Stern. "It has brought us a multitude of secrets, and frankly, I think, on a per gram basis, it could even be that Pluto is outdone himself.

Email to Meghan Bartels at [19659018] mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels . Follow us on Twitter @SpaceTotcom and on Facebook .
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