Ultima Thule Looks Like a Snowman in First New Horizons Images

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

At a news conference on Wednesday, scientists working with NASA's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by on January 1.

The image: The object, which looks a little like a snowman, is what's known as a "contact binary", a body consisting of two connected spheres measuring 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length.

"Two completely separate objects that are now joined together", said S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the mission.

Although NASA's Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not almost as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time. The larger of the pair, which scientists named Ultima, is three times bigger than the smaller one, dubbed Thule.

Ultima Thule is likely similar to some comets and asteroids that scientists have studied as they pass through the inner solar system. Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist, said the object has a rotation period of approximately 15 hours.

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for "making history".

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

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).

Jeff Moore, New Horizon's geological and geophysics lead, said Ultima Thule is "perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any space craft".

The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph.

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The flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.

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.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".

Color may seem trivial, but for the New Horizons team, it's critical information that will help the researchers determine what ices and minerals decorate the object's surface, says Silvia Protopapa, a co-investigator of the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission.

The balance of the massive amount of data collected by New Horizons' suite of seven instruments will be streamed back to Earth - there is about a six-hour delay in receiving the radio signal from the spacecraft - over the next 20 months.

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He added: 'It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science'.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule".

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