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The most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft looks a lot like a bowling pin, or perhaps a chicken drumstick.
Early this morning (Jan. 1), NASA's New Horizons probe cruised past Ultima Thule, a small body that lies about 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from Earth. At 12:33 a.m. EST (0533 GMT), the spacecraft zoomed within a mere 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of Ultima — more than three times closer than New Horizons got to Pluto during its epic flyby of the dwarf planet in July 2015.
Objects - Situation - Terms - New - Horizons
"If it's two separate objects, this would be an unprecedented situation in terms of how closely they're orbiting to one another," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said during a news conference today.
So, he added, "my bet would be that it's probably a single object — it's bilobate. And if I'm wrong, I'll tell you tomorrow."
Kuiper - Belt - Ultima - Thule - Bowling
The Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule takes on a bowling pin shape (left) in this view from the New Horizons spacecraft taken on Dec. 31, 2018 just before its flyby closest approach on Jan. 1, 2019. At right is an artist's sketch of the object, which is about suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers).
New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is also putting his money on the single-body option. Small, bilobate objects are common throughout the solar system,...
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