Nasa snaps the first high-res images of 'snowman' Ultima Thule

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

A NASA spacecraft traveling four billion miles from Earth has sent back its first close-up pictures of the most distant celestial object ever explored, and it looks like a reddish snowman.

The new images - taken from as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometers) on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres, said NASA.

Resembling a 33-kilometer-long interplanetary "snowman", in the words of Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, and principal investigator for the $800 million mission, MU69 appears to have formed when two spherical objects gently smooshed together billions of years ago. NASA dubbed the larger lobe Ultima, and the other, which is about three times smaller, Thule.

Stern highlighted the precision that was required for the rendezvous with Ultima Thule. It has a rotation period of about 15 hours.

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning.

After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.

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The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph. They named the larger region Ultima and the smaller one Thule. Moore noted that the early images did not show any solid evidence of impact craters; additional images may reveal whether Ultima Thule has been struck in the past or is worn smooth.

"We have far less than 1 per cent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons, already down on the ground". The discovery required the use of the Hubble Space Telescope, because ground-based observations had not found a Kuiper belt object in the zone of space that can be accessed by New Horizons.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion mile journey toward the solar system's frigid, faraway edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

"I've said it a number of times, I think New Horizons is an example - one of the best examples in our time - of raw exploration, and the term Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly over a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration", Stern said. Olkin said the initial data will focus on specific bands that could help scientists identify water ice or other volatiles. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, the mission's geology manager. More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered at 8 p.m. for a look.

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start.

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