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THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Less than three months after the New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past a distant, cold space rock, scientists are beginning to piece together the story of how that object, nicknamed Ultima Thule, came to be.
In a series of scientific presentations held March 18 at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, mission scientists shared new data about the space rock's topography and composition, which is helping them to refine scenarios about how the object formed.
Observation - Alan - Stern - Investigator - New
"Every single observation that we planned worked as planned," Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said during the team's first presentation. "We had a 100 percent successful flyby."
The wealth of data the spacecraft was able to gather has offered mysteries and hypotheses alike about the distant Kuiper Belt object, which scientists hadn't even discovered when New Horizons launched. In particular, the team has been eager to piece together how the object, which is formally known as 2014 MU69, formed.
Flyby - Team - MU69 - Fact - Objects
Soon after the flyby, the team confirmed that MU69 is in fact two objects stuck together in what scientists call a contact binary. Continuing analysis of high-resolution black-and-white New Horizons photographs suggests that the two halves of the object formed separately, and that the larger lobe, nicknamed Ultima, appears to be the result of many much smaller objects clumping together, like Dippin' Dots.
A new map produced by the New Horizons team appears to show the many different lumps of rock that converged to form the object nicknamed Ultima Thule.
Team - Color - Images - Evidence - Structure
But when the team turns to color images, it's harder to see evidence of this aggregate structure. MU69's overwhelmingly red surface shows some variations in color that match surface features, but not the hypothesized small geologic subunits.
"You definitely see some correlation with the geological features,...
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