The artist who ‘saw’ Ultima Thule 40 years ago


Astronomer and painter imagined ‘snowman’ asteroids long before NASA proved their existence.



Hartmann/PSI/ NASA/APL/SWRI

This compound image shows one man’s vision to a tee.

In the late 70s, Bill Hartmann and colleagues at the US planetary Science Institute followed up observations of an asteroid called 624 Hektor, the results for which showed extreme changes in brightness.

These changes could be explained, they reasoned, if the asteroid was made up of two smaller objects, wedged together following a very low velocity collision.

Intrigued, Hartmann, who was an artist as well as an astronomer, painted several picture depicting what such a “compound binary” might look like.

The three shown here are from 1978, 1980 and 1996. And with them, in the bottom righthand quadrant, is the first close-up image that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back to Earth in January this year of its own asteroid target, Ultima Thule.

Bill Hartmann was on the money.

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