NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

Ultima Thule

It's a moment that could define the future, but the name "Ultima Thule" is one from the past.

In a gorgeous new image delivered by New Horizons we can see that Ultima Thule is actually two rocks of differing sizes flying in tandem and touching. "Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space". Stern said the spacecraft will resume transmitting in mid-January.

The new image also resolved the debate about the nature of Ultima Thule. Flight controllers say everything looked good for New Horizons' flyby of the tiny, icy object, 3 ½ years after its encounter with Pluto. The fly-by took place at 05:33 UTC. That created the two bodies seen at Ultima Thule: a larger one, dubbed simply "Ultima", that is 19 kilometers across, and a smaller one, "Thule", 14 kilometers across. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other and stuck together. Ultima Thule is about 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers) in size, but its composition is still unknown. The two spheres probably joined right at the start of the solar system's formation, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender, according to NASA.

It also looks pristine, nearly unchanged since it formed out of a disk of dust and gas that orbited the sun more than 4.5 billion years ago.

"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation". Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It's been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.

Scientists are keen to study Ultima Thule as it lives in a region that has been relatively untouched since the formation of the solar system, which in turn helps them better understand planetary formation.

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Ultima Thule, a name that was nominated by 40 people, won the public poll.

The first color image of Ultima Thule, far left, was taken at a distance of 85,000 miles and highlights the object's red color.

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

The narrow "neck" between the two lobes appears to be relatively bright, perhaps suggesting that particular materials might have settled there. The center image was taken by a black and white imager with a higher resolution.

For more on New Horizons and its historic journey through the Solar System, watch "Pluto and Beyond", premiering tonight at 9 p.m. ET / 8 p.m CT on PBS.

"In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system", said Bridenstine.

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