NASA's New Horizons: 'Snowman' shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed

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In the early hours of 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule, the most distant celestial object ever reached by a manmade device-more than a billion miles past Pluto.

The scientists now say with confidence that Ultima Thule long ago was two bodies that got stuck together, what they call a "contact binary".

NASA is also interested in getting a closer look at the "neck" region of Ultima Thule, which appears much lighter in color than the rest of the surface.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

Project scientists have named the larger sphere, judged to be about 12 miles across, "Ultima", and the smaller lobe, about 9miles across, "Thule". He said Ultima Thule was selected as 2014 MU69's informal nickname because its ancient meaning provided a "wonderful meme for exploration".

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning.

"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation".

NASA said, 'This historic image, the highest resolution image released so far, was made at a range of about 28,000 kilometers only 30 minutes before the New Horizons closest approach.

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Based on fuzzy images obtained earlier, the scientists had said that Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin. The image on the left is an enhanced color image, the center image is a higher resolution image of the object and the right image shows the color overlaid onto the higher resolution image.

About ten hours ago, NASA shared a picture of the snowman-shaped Ultima Thule on Twitter.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. Stern said the New Horizons team would start writing scientific papers next week, based on the data already in hand, and nearly certainly propose another mission extension to NASA by 2020. Olkin said the initial data will focus on specific bands that could help scientists identify water ice or other volatiles.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a wayback machine to time zero", Moore said.

Its mission now totaling $800 million, the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons will keep hurtling toward the edge of the solar system, observing Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, from afar, and taking cosmic particle measurements.

Stern expressed surprise, and elation, that after picking the mission target "more or less" out of the hat, "that we were able to get as big a victor as this, that is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".

However, this is just the start, and scientists have promised more details soon.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".