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

Icy Ultima Thule, far beyond Pluto, looks like a snowman

The New Horizons spacecraft's picture of an icy object 4 billion miles from Earth became a lot clearer today, and took on a surprisingly familiar shape.

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.

New Horizons's encounter with Ultima Thule happened so far away that it took six hours for signals traveling at the speed of light to reach Earth.

For quite some time, this model has relied heavily on the theory that small pieces of dust in the protoplanetary nebula surrounding the Sun after its birth collided with each other and stuck together to form larger specs of dust.

"This is what we need to move the models of planetary formation forward", said Alan Stern.

Stern noted that the team has received less than 1 percent of all the data stored aboard New Horizons. He and his colleagues plan to apply for NASA approval to extend their mission, either to conduct another Kuiper belt object flyby or explore other aspects of the outer solar system.

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. As a whole, the little world measures 19 miles (30.5 km) long.

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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.

NASA launched New Horizons in 2006 when Pluto was still considered a planet.

He added: "These are the only remaining basic building blocks in the back yard of the solar system that we can see that everything else that we live on, or receive through our telescopes, or visit with our spacecraft, were formed from".

Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

The color photo was then combined with the image taken by the LORRI camera (which has almost five times the spatial resolution of the MVIC) to produce a detailed image that shows the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. It appears not to have any impact craters. The left image is color-enhanced. This image confirms that Ultima Thule (official designation (486958) 2014 MU69) is a "contact binary" object, the first one ever explored up close.

"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a NASA briefing. "In the coming months, New Horizons will transmit dozens of data sets to Earth, and we'll write new chapters in the story of Ultima Thule - and the solar system", she said.

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