May 31, 2019 I Brett Tingley

NASA Discovers Water and Organic Molecules on ‘Snowman World’ Ultima Thule

The NASA New Horizon team has finally published the first study of the data it gathered on Ultima Thule, the strange, distant binary object consisting of two conjoined pancake-shaped lobes which resemble a half-melted snowman. Ultima Thule lies four billion miles away from Earth in the Kuiper belt, the ring of rocky and icy asteroids just past Neptune. NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft has been studying Ultima Thule since late 2018, and the mission marks the first ever study of a planetesimal, a half-formed object leftover from the era of planetary formation. 

Ultima Thule gets its name from a Latin term which refers to the most distant place beyond the borders of the known world - but unfortunately that same term was used by the Nazis to refer to the mythical homeland of the Aryan race in all of that weird Nazi mythology. Whoops. Despite the somewhat controversial name, the object offers astronomers the chance to study a truly unique and mysterious object right here in our own Solar System, just a few billion miles away. We're practically neighbors!

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Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule is about 22 miles long and has two distinctly differently shaped lobes, or bodies, joined at a central 'neck.' Just how the two objects came to be conjoined in such a way is a mystery, but it likely happened as many other planetesimals were crashing together on their way to becoming a planet. For some reason, these two bodies didn’t make the final cut and were likely ejected from that burgeoning planet’s gravity and left adrift in the cold blackness of space some time in the cosmic past.

"We're looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past," said New Horizons Principal Investigator and rock star astronomer Alan Stern in a press release. "There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation."

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Composite image of Ultima Thule

In their new publication in Science, the New Horizons team disclosed some of their initial findings about Ultima Thule and discussed the features they are continuing to study. Already, they have discovered that Ultima Thule is a rocky, reddish object lined with hills, pits, and craters and the reddish color is believed to come from methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule’s surface, a rare discovery if confirmed. NASA will continue its flyby of Ultima Thule until 2020.

According to one version of the panspermia hypothesis, organic molecules hitching rides on objects like Ultima Thule could be the ‘seed’ which spreads life throughout the universe. Could the molecules lurking on Ultima Thule hold the keys to life itself? All it takes a few nuggets of carbon, a few chunks of hydrogen, throw some oxygen in there, mix in a pinch of nitrogen, add calcium and phosphorus to taste, crash it all into a volatile oxygen-rich planet, wait a few billion years and boom: Big Macs, Facebook, and Boeing 737s. The universe is a weird place.  

Where will Ultima Thule ultimately end up? Will their reality TV be as miserable as ours?

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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