A First Look at Ultima Thule

Science News gives us the latest on New Horizon’s flyby of Ultima Thule, giving us our closest look at the furthest object we’ve ever visited:

The last best view of Ultima Thule that New Horizons sent back before last night’s flyby gave a rough view of the object’s shape. It revealed an elongated, bowling pin–like shape, team members announced at a news conference this morning.

“It’s a pixelated blob, but it’s a better pixelated blob,” said mission project scientist Hal Weaver, of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

It’s still not entirely clear whether Ultima Thule is a single object with two lobes, or two objects orbiting each other extremely closely. But principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., is betting on it being a solitary world.

“If it’s two separate objects, this would be an unprecedented situation in terms of how close they’re orbiting to one another,” Stern said in the news conference. “That would be spectacular, and I’d love to see it, but the higher probability is a single body.”

If Ultima Thule is a single, two-lobed body, it could have formed in a slow-motion collision between smaller objects in the solar system’s distant past. More high-resolution images will be downloaded in the next few days to help clear things up.

“This will all be revealed tomorrow or the next day,” Weaver said. “Ultima Thule will turn into a real world.”