Nasa releases first high-resolution images of 'snowman' Ultima Thule

Here's Our First Image Of Ultima Thule, The 'Most Distant Object Ever Visited By A Spacecraft' - Digg

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of tiresome brick. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima.

The first detailed images beamed back from the U.S. agency´s New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery.

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.

At a news conference Wednesday, scientists working with NASA's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Tuesday. "Meet Ultima Thule!" said lead investigator Alan Stern, doing little to hide his joy as he revealed a new sharper image of the cosmic body, taken at a distance as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometers) with a resolution of 140 meters per pixel.

Scientist Jeff Moore of Nasa's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. The bowling pin image is "so 2018", joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute. Then the spheres slowly spiralled closer to each other and stuck together.

"I'm here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly".

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A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule.

"Ultima Thule" was one of 37 contenders that the New Horizons team selected from 34,000 public suggestions and put to the vote. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.

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.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 51,000km/h, the spacecraft made its closest approach within 3,500 kilometres of the surface of Ultima Thule.

The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system. "It's something that's completely different". More data on Ultima Thule is streaming back to NASA at this very moment, so expect additional announcements in the coming days.

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