Probe sends first glimpse of distant icy world

Ultima Thule views
The left image shows a raw, pixel-by-pixel view of an icy object known as Ultima Thule, as captured by NASA’s New Horizons probe at 11:56 a.m. ET Dec. 30 from a distance of 1.2 million miles. (JHUAPL / SwRI / NASA via YouTube)

LAUREL, Md. — The science team for NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft released its first multi-pixel view of an icy world more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and the analysis suggests it’s an elongated space cigar.

“We know it’s not round, we can say that with confidence,” John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute, one of the mission’s project scientists, said today during a news briefing scheduled just hours before the probe was due to fly just 2,200 miles past the mysterious object.

Based on observations made on Earth during stellar occultations, Spencer and other astronomers suspected that the object — known by its formal designation, 2014 MU69, or by its nickname, Ultima Thule — might be made of smooshed-together chunks of ice and rock.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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