NASA’s New Horizons mission releases snowman-like picture of Ultima Thule

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NASA released a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far.

Mission scientists said the first science data transmitted back from New Horizons has shown Ultima Thule to actually be two separate objects joined together, making it the first contact binary to be explored by a spacecraft.

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.

The new images, taken during the New Year's flyby, are the first to confirm that Ultima Thule's teeny waistline is more a juncture than an hourglass.

We now know the basics of this unusual object, the most distant solar system body ever explored by a spacecraft. The area has hundreds of thousands of objects that could hold the keys to understanding the beginning of our solar system. It's located in the Kuiper Belt, an icy region of our solar system beyond the orbit of the major planets. At left is an enhanced colour image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels.

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really fantastic", Stern said.

Color images from New Horizons reveal that, like other Kuiper belt objects, it has a dark reddish hue.

The first color image of Ultima Thule. The coming weeks will reveal more about the object's composition and terrain.

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The images are obviously very low in resolution, and it's not immediately clear if or when we'll get a better glimpse of the rock, but New Horizons still has a lot of data to beam back to Earth.

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings.

Check it out below, followed by a photo of the Queen guitarist with Alan Stern, the principal New Horizons mission investigator who personally requested May's musical talents.

Eventually, these two bodies remained, slowly spiralling closer until they touched, forming Ultima Thule.

"This is the first object that we can clearly tell was born this way" Stern said, instead of evolving as a sort of "bi-lobe". Its nearly nonexistent reflectivity didn't exactly help the New Horizons team as they sought it out.

The latest images of Ultima Thule were taken from about 17,000 miles out, showing a formation that end to end measures about 19 miles in length, and has a rotation period of 15 hours, plus or minus an hour.

The object itself is as dark as potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute. The Ultima Thule is located four billion miles away from the sun and is an icy body in the space.