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

05 January 2019

At a January 2 press conference at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here, scientists working on the mission released new images showing that the Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is a "contact binary", two objects touching one another, with an appearance some likened to a snowman.

Today's imagery, derived from data sent back to Earth on the previous day, literally casts a whole new light on the 19-mile-long object - which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by the nickname given by the New Horizons team, Ultima Thule ("Ul-ti-ma Too-lay"). Based on the preliminary data, scientists now believe Ultima Thule is a contact binary - two pieces of space rock that slowly came together over time.

Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. By contrast, he suggested, scientists did not know for sure whether other two-lobe bodies - most notably the rubber ducky-like Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - were two objects that came together or one larger body that had eroded into its current shape. This New Year the spacecraft happened to be the icebreaker and gave the world a clear and vivid idea about the Ultima Thule.

Check it out below, followed by a photo of the Queen guitarist with Alan Stern, the principal New Horizons mission investigator who personally requested May's musical talents. That will change as later images, taken at different angles, are sent back, Moore said.

Demonstrating a disappointing lack of imagination, scientists have dubbed the larger sphere (12 miles across) "Ultima" and the smaller (nine miles across) "Thule".

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The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

An earlier, fuzzier image made it look like a bowling pin.

There is some dispute among scientists, though, about whether Ultima Thule is the first contact binary seen.

Team members and guest at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, gathered to celebrate both the new year and the fly-by of New Horizons, which launched in 2006.

For Ultima Thule - which wasn't even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 - the endeavor was more hard.

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The photographs of Ultima Thule, captured by the spacecraft, were revealed at a press conference on Wednesday.

Ultima was chosen as a follow-up object for study, coming after New Horizons' 2015 flyby of Pluto and its moons. In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and the following year selected it for New Horizon's extended mission.

'I don't think we have stressed enough, so I really want to say, what this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented. "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.

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

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