Ultima Thule emerges as contact binary, "cosmic snowman", in new spacecraft images

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The images come courtesy of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its New Year's Day flyby.

NASA rang in the New Year with a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever explored by humankind - a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule - in the hopes of learning more about how planets took shape.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: "It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt".

Signals confirming the probe is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center at 10:29 a.m. EST (3:29 p.m. GMT).

This tiny Kuiper Belt asteroid-like body, 2014 MU69, was the new target of the New Horizon's spacecraft.

The Kuiper Belt is the edge of our solar system, part of the original disk from which the sun and planets formed.

Jeff Moore, the mission's team lead for geology and geophysics, likened New Horizons to a time machine, taking scientists back to the birth of the solar system.

Project scientists have named the larger sphere, judged to be about 12 miles across, "Ultima", and the smaller lobe, about 9miles across, "Thule".

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On Wednesday, NASA officials said they "could not be happier" with the latest image of the "snowman", which it said were "separate objects now joined together". "If you had a collision with another vehicle at those speeds, you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms", he said. He explains that Ultima Thule appears to be a basic planetary building block that was left over and is still lying around "the backyard of the solar system". "What we're looking at is basically the first planetesimals", Moore said.

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule".

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 two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary".

Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation.

An analysis of the picture showed that Ultima's brightest spots reflect 13 percent of the light that falls on them, while the darkest spots reflect only 6 percent.

Since the first approach photographs were released (which were pixilated and blurry), the New Horizons team has released new images from the spacecraft that show Ultimate Thule in color and greater detail.

The flow of images and scientific insights is expected to get stronger in the days, weeks and months ahead, as the spacecraft sends back several gigabytes of stored data at a rate of 1,000 bits per second.

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