First Clear Picture Of Ultima Thule Reveals Snowman-Like Shape

New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is seen before a news conference after the team received confirmation from the New Horizons spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Ultim

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings. Ultima Thule is about 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers) in size, but its composition is still unknown. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday. That's right, as New Horizons passed this object, NASA had beamed radar pulses at it, to bounce off at just the right moment, so that New Horizons would pick up the radar reflections. At left is an enhanced colour image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. "If that proposal is accepted, we would start a search for [another] object that we could fly by", Stern said.

Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when icy, pebble-size pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. The area begins just beyond the orbit of Neptune, more than 4.4 billion kilometres from the sun, and is believed to extend to about eight billion kilometres from the sun.

This three-panel drawing depicts the likely scenario for how 2014 MU69 formed, as two different, gravitationally-bound objects formed from solar system debris, and then slowly spiraled in to eventually touch.

Images also revealed that the two lobes have a mottled appearance.

Ultima's current rotation rate, estimated at about 15 hours for a complete turn, isn't fast enough to fling the two balls apart, Moore said.

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Data from the New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule will be coming in for about two years.

The two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary".

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of boring brick.

The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Mr Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists.

The snowman picture was taken a half-hour before the spacecraft's closest approach early Tuesday, from a distance of about 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers).

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What will New Horizons show us when it transmits an even more HD image to Earth?

It's neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather "a primordial planetesimal".

In March, NASA and the New Horizons team announced their decision to use Ultima Thule as a nickname for the second stop on their solar system tour, which is officially known as 2014 MU69, a formula that designates when it was discovered.

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really fantastic", Stern said. It's not fish or fowl. "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it".

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