Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

It is also a bilobate or compact binary object, meaning that it is composed of two separate objects that are now joined.

The past two days have been incredibly exciting for NASA and its New Horizons spacecraft. Shortly after the encounter, New Horizons beamed back a handful of initial images showing a bowling pin-shaped object.

Yesterday, Principal Investigator Alan Stern said that if he had to bet, his money would be on 2014 MU69 being a single object - a prediction agreed to by others on the panel.

Composite of two images (left) taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and an artist's impression (right) of Ultima Thule's appearance.

The accretion process that formed 2014 MU69. NASA said the joining of the two objects illuminates the processes that built the planets billions of years ago.

The two spheres spiralled closer to each other and eventually got stuck together. He joked that if they were cars, "you probably wouldn't fill out the insurance form". The area has hundreds of thousands of objects that could hold the keys to understanding the beginning of our solar system. But the Kuiper belt object is so distant and so dim that even the most powerful telescopes saw it only as a flicker of light in the sky. It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.

However, more will be revealed as more data comes in.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead Jeff Moore said in a statement. It is the first inhabitant of the Kuiper belt - the ring of rocky relics that surrounds the outer solar system - that scientists have seen up close. And we're getting to know those borders.

The new length measurement of 33 km (21 miles).

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. The larger lobe is the "bottom" sphere and the smaller lobe is the "upper" sphere. Because Pluto is so far away, New Horizons had to get moving at a phenomenal speed to get there in a reasonable amount of time.

Another camera captured a color view, revealing that Ultima is definitely red, said Carly Howett, a New Horizons science team member from the Southwest Research Institute.

Exactly what ices - methane, nitrogen, or something else - is not yet known. Note the reduced red colouring at the neck of the object.

But Ultima is a further 1.5 billion km further out. Gravity is holding them together.

They said it the image showed "the first contact binary ever explored by spacecraft". Stern. "We're not saying there aren't craters". "Ultima is telling us about our evolutionary history".

"That bowling pin is gone - it´s a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a NASA briefing.

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