NASA’s New Horizons mission releases snowman-like picture of Ultima Thule

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The returned New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first image of the ice world, Ultima Thule.

The latest images transmitted by the New Horizons probe, as it continues the 20-month process of sending Earthwards all that lovely science data collected during its flyby, show Ultima Thule is actually a "contact binary" consisting of two connected spheres. Alan Stern, the lead investigator for the mission, said, "It's two completely different objects that are now joined together".

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule - meaning "beyond the known world" - before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two.

"Think of New Horizons as a time machine that has brought us back to the very beginning of the solar system, to a place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".

Even clearer pictures are arriving on Earth in another transmission.

Stern and other team members discussed early findings on Wednesday from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., where the spacecraft was designed and built and also is operated.

Why it matters: The last few years have been incredibly exciting for space exploration thanks to successful missions from probes like Cassini and New Horizons.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote.

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This image made available by NASA shows images with separate colour and detail information, and a composited image of both, showing Ultima Thule.

Early analysis from New Horizons' camera suggests that Ultima Thule, based in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, is the result of two bodies that are now fused together. The center is a higher-resolution image.

The larger sphere is "Ultima" and measures 19 kilometres across. That means it is a single object, with two lobes, but the lobes are gently in contact.

More data on Ultima Thule is streaming back to NASA at this very moment, so expect additional announcements in the coming days.

Also of interest is the apparent lack of craters, hinting at a surface built through accretion rather than the violent impacts seen in the inner solar system. It's so far away the picture took six hours to reach Earth. Frozen in time, the object may allow NASA to collect data that it hopes can give us further insight into the history and formation of our solar system.

Ultima Thule is likely similar to some comets and asteroids that scientists have studied as they pass through the inner solar system.

We may never, never reach them. It's not fish or fowl.

"This is the first object that we can clearly tell was born this way" Stern said, instead of evolving as a sort of "bi-lobe".

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