NASA releases New Horizons' first clear image of 'snowman' Ultima Thule


"It will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth".

But now, clearer images have revealed a snowman.

Nasa's New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto 3 years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year's Day.

The mission team has chose to call the larger lobe "Ultima" and the smaller lobe "Thule".

And the images confirmed what observations using the Hubble Space Telescope had suggested as New Horizons scientists scouted Ultima Thule - that, like parts of Pluto and its moon Charon, it has a rusty hue.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said the picture was the "most detailed image of the farthest object ever explored by a spacecraft".

Scientists are keen to study Ultima Thule as it lives in a region that has been relatively untouched since the formation of the solar system, which in turn helps them better understand planetary formation. New images from varying perspectives - captured as the probe moved passed the object - will bring out shadows on the object surfaces, revealing its contours more clearly.

The dark object is formed of two spheres which have combined to form one celestial object.

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The shape of Ultima Thule had been the subject of speculation for years leading up to the flyby.

Though they do not appear to have impact craters, there could be hills and ridges, with the neck connecting the two lobes being one of the steepest slopes.

We have a lot more data to download from New Horizons over the coming months at the painfully slow rate of one kilobit per second. NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months. He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule". But unlike the planets, which have undergone dramatic geologic change, and comets, which are heated and transformed by the sun, the Kuiper belt object has existed in a "deep freeze" since it first formed, 4.6 billion years ago.

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. "What we're looking at is basically the first planetesimals", Moore said.

Scientists weren't able to confirm the flyby until several hours later. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima".

"What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented", said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, before unveiling the first images.

Stereo analysis and subsequent imaging will be available soon. He called New Horizons "a time machine", capable of taking scientists back to the moment of our origins.