On the first day of the year, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by and recorded data on the most distant object ever to be studied in space. The object is known as Ultima Thule and lies way out beyond Pluto. The images that were returned by the spacecraft have allowed scientists to finally draw some pretty substantial conclusions about the distant object. There’s still plenty more data that will roll in, but given how far away New Horizons is, NASA will have to wait 20 months for all of the data to make its way back to Earth.
However, the data that has made it back is pretty interesting. Here’s a look at that data and the conclusions that researchers have made based on it.
First of all, Ultima Thule has been confirmed to be two different objects. The official term for it is “contact binary.” That means that at some point two separate bodies were floating through space and happened to touch. They stuck together, giving Ultima Thule its signature “snowman” appearance. In fact, that’s where the object got its name. The larger object was called Ultima and the smaller body was named Thule. Together, they make up a body that is a little over 21 miles in length.
Another major conclusion that can now be drawn about the distant object is regarding its age. The particular region where the object is located is called the Kuiper belt. It’s expected that this area of the solar system is home to some of the oldest materials in existence. Ultima Thule seems to confirm this. In fact, the rounded and smooth surfaces suggest that the object has been that way for at last the past 4.5 billion years! That’s a significant conclusion, as future research could give us never before seen information regarding how some of our planets, and even the sun itself, might have been formed.
Other conclusions have been made, too. For example, the item is clearly red in color, much like many other objects throughout the solar system. Also, scientists have been able to determine that Ultima Thule rotates on its axis once every 15 hours.
Again, this basic data is just the start of what will roll in over the next couple of years. And while Ultima Thule is certainly an intriguing object to study, we still have to wonder what else is out there, beyond it.