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Celestial Object Past Pluto Looks Like A Snowman: NASA

It's neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather "a primordial planetesimal."

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NASA, Pluto
This image made available by NASA on Jan. 2, 2019, shows images with separate color and detail information, and a composited image of both, showing Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. VOA

A NASA spacecraft 4 billion miles from Earth yielded its first close-up pictures Wednesday of the most distant celestial object ever explored, depicting what looks like a reddish snowman.

Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, was found to consist of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 21 miles (33 kilometers) in length.

NASA’s New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto 3-plus years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year’s Day. It is 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

On Tuesday, based on early, fuzzy images taken the day before, scientists said Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

“The bowling pin is gone. It’s a snowman!” lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory , home to Mission Control. The bowling pin image is “so 2018,” joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute.

NASA, earth
New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, speaks about new data received from the New Horizons spacecraft during a press conference after the spacecraft completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, Jan. 1, 2019. VOA

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule — meaning “beyond the known world” — before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. With the arrival of the photos, they are now calling the bigger sphere Ultima and the smaller one Thule.

Thule is estimated to be 9 miles (14 kilometers) across, while Ultima is thought to be 12 miles (19 kilometers).

Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when icy, pebble-size pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched — as slowly as parking a car here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour — and stuck together.

Despite the slender connection point, the two lobes are “soundly bound” together, according to Moore.

 

Pluto, NASA, new horizons
This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. NASA launched the probe in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. VOA

Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. If it were spinning fast — say, one rotation every three or four hours — the two spheres would rip apart.

Stern noted that the team has received less than 1 percent of all the data stored aboard New Horizons. It will take nearly two years to get it all.

The two-lobed object is what is known as a “contact binary.” It is the first contact binary NASA has ever explored. Having formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system taking shape, it is also the most primitive object seen up close like this.

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of dull brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.

Both spheres are similarly red, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

Pluto, NASA, new horizons
New Horizons team members are seen during a press conference prior to the flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons spacecraft, Dec. 31, 2018, at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. VOA

So far, no moons or rings have been detected. And scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent “divots” and suggestions of hills and ridges. But better images should yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.

The snowman picture was taken a half-hour before the spacecraft’s closest approach early Tuesday, from a distance of about 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers).

Ultima Thule is an exquisite time machine — the most primitive object ever seen close up — that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.

Also Read: NASA’s New Horizon Set Out To Make History

It’s neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather “a primordial planetesimal.” Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It’s been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.

“This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really amazing,” Stern said. He added: “We’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s not fish or fowl. It’s something that’s completely different.”

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, “there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can’t figure out.” (VOA)

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Scientists Analysing Images Taken by NASA of Vikram Moon Lander

Therefore, it could be difficult to identify right now (and it) may be a little longer before we have another opportunity

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Scientists, Images, NASA
But he added, "It is important to remember that the illumination conditions right now where the lander may be are harsh." Pixabay

Scientists are analysing the images taken under harsh light conditions by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera of the area where the Vikram moon lander is likely to have touched down on the moon and it may be a while before they can locate it, project experts told IANS.

LRO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Noah Petro, said on Wednesday that they were now analysing the images taken on Tuesday “and we will make a statement at some point when we can identify the lander.”

But he added, “It is important to remember that the illumination conditions right now where the lander may be are harsh.”

Therefore, it “could be difficult to identify right now (and it) may be a little longer before we have another opportunity to image the landing site next October 14” when the LRO next passes over that area of the moon.

Scientists, Images, NASA
Scientists are analysing the images taken under harsh light conditions by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera of the area. Pixabay

The principal investigator for the LRO camera, Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, said that the last image of the area was acquired on Wednesday and will take time to analyse as there are “lots and lots and lots of pixels” to go through.

A NASA statement carried a note of caution saying that when the LRO flew over the Vikram landing the “local lunar time was near dusk; large shadows covered much of the area.”

The LROC “acquired images around the targeted landing site, but the exact location of the lander was not known so the lander may not be in the camera field of view,” NASA said.

“The LROC team will analyze these new images and compare them to previous images to see if the lander is visible (it may be in shadow or outside the imaged area),” it added.

Also Read- India Grapples with Credit Issues

Vikram lost contact with the Indian Space Research Organisation after it was launched by the Chandraayan 2 moon orbiter to touch down in the area of the moon’s south pole on September 6.

After following the intended trajectory, it deviated in the final moments during the last two kilometres of the descent and went silent.

Vikram carried a rover called Pragyan that was to have conducted experiments on the moon’s surface.

Aviation Week created some confusion on Wednesday with an erroneous headline, “NASA’s LRO fails to spot Chandraayan 2 Lander,” which was picked up by others.

Scientists, Images, NASA
LRO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Noah Petro, said on Wednesday that they were now analysing the images taken on Tuesday “and we will make a statement at some point . Pixabay

Both the scientists IANS spoke to said the headline was wrong.

Robinson said: “They are rather astonishing because we haven’t had the images to look at yet. I don’t know where that came from.”

Petro said, “The headline is wrong. That was actually posted even before we had the data on the ground.”

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The publication later changed the headline to “NASA’s LRO Begins Search For Silent Chandrayaan-2 Lander.” (IANS)