NASA reveals images of distant 'Snowman' shaped Ultima Thule

NASA reveals images of distant 'Snowman' shaped Ultima Thule

As a whole, the little world measures 19 miles (30.5 km) long.

Ultima Thule, a celestial object, formed of two spheres, around 21-miles tall, photographed by Nasa's New Horizons spacecraft.

The first detailed picture from Tuesday's flyby of the world reveals a double body shape - or snowman shape as scientists have called it.

"Meet #UltimaThule! What you're seeing is the 1st contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft", tweeted Nasa.

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 3540 kilometres of it and providing a better look at the surface.

NASA said it named the larger portion Ultima and the smaller section Thule. NASA said during today's press conference that better lighting and closer proximity to the target will result in much improved images.

"If you have a collision with another auto at those speeds, you may not bother to fill out the insurance forms", he joked. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead.

New Horizons, designed by and managed from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, has been speeding toward the edge of the solar system for 13 years. Occasional astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen Brian May has gifted us with a song in tribute to NASA's successful mission to flyby Ultima Thule. Stern described Ultimate Thule as being about the size of Washington D.C. and as reflective as garden-variety dirt. "And it's illuminated by a sun that's 1,900 times fainter that it is outside on a sunny day on Earth, So we're basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour". It's also the first Kuiper Belt object of its kind to ever be encountered by a spacecraft. Temperatures here approach absolute zero (minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit), which is as cold as it gets. Because it is so far from the sun, it remains in a deep freeze.

NASA reveals images of distant 'Snowman' shaped Ultima Thule

A third factor is just the nature of the environment. The Kuiper belt hasn't been stirred up. The probe will now study the makeup of Ultima Thule's atmosphere and terrain for further clues about how solar system and planets form.

What does New Horizons do next?

SwRI's Cathy Olkin, one of the mission's deputy project scientists, said the red color could well be due to organic chemicals known as tholins that are coating the surface.

Seeing one close up could clear up many debates. Some of the data acquired by New Horizons might shed light on that. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s.

At that time the outer fringes of the solar system consisted of "innumerable small particles or pebbles", Moore explained, that slowly coalesced into larger ones.

The two 1970s Voyager missions have both now left the heliosphere - the bubble of gas blown off our Sun (one definition of the Solar System's domain).

Limitless wonders in a never ending sky. It astounded the New Horizons science team, including astrophysicist Brian May.

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