NASA’s New Horizons Shows Image of Snowman-Like Object

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

Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

Despite that primitive appearance - if not because of it - they said the object nicknamed Ultima Thule could offer profound new insight into how the planets formed more than 4½ billion years ago.

NASA researchers promised fresh announcements would drop Thursday, including on the composition and atmosphere of Ultima Thule, as new images with even more precise resolution have come through.

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.

The small object appeared as a point source in Hubble Space Telescope images, where it was discovered in 2014, and in images from New Horizons itself until a couple days before the flyby.

"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far", lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute.

The event set a record for the most distant ever exploration of a Solar System object.

New images of what looks like an upside-down two-ball snowman floating in space (taken from as close as 17,000 miles on approach) is actually a "contact binary"-two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge".

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.

If confirmed, this configuration could represent a precious snapshot of planetary formation in action, supporting the idea that the massive, orbiting bodies in our inner solar system assembled in part through the rapid coalescing of pebbles and dust.

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In addition to the clip, NASA also shared an artist's rendering, along with a theory about how Ultima Thule could have formed over time, beginning with a rotating cloud of icy bodies.

Also of interest is the apparent lack of craters, hinting at a surface built through accretion rather than the violent impacts seen in the inner solar system.

Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule.

New Horizons spent 13 years travelling to Ultima Thule's location at the heart of the Kuiper Belt.

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).

Ultima Thule is one of hundreds of thousands of space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit.

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. NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

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