NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like snowman

Ultima Thule

If the craft holds up, and the support mission back on Earth gets funding for a "hyperextended mission", New Horizons could be sampling the interstellar medium by the time today's newborns are finishing high school. "Then suddenly you have this wonderful spacecraft zooming past it and taking the most incredible close-up pictures".

In 2006, an incredible spacecraft was launched towards the dwarf planet Pluto, known as New Horizons.

This artist's impression 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, may not be that far off: the Kuiper Belt object appears to be a duo locked in a permanent kiss.

That data will be sent back over the next year and a half, because the mobile reception isn't exactly great on the further reaches of our solar system. One day, they touched.

The team also discovered the region of Ultima Thule corresponding to the snowman's neck is one of its brightest parts, suggesting fine grain material may have rolled there due to steep slopes and gravity.

And here's the rough image we had of Ultima Thule yesterday so that you can really see the differences in resolution.

"This flyby is a historic achievement", said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

That's where Ultima Thule comes in: It looks to be a partial conglomeration of uncooked space dough-a premature mashup that could have served as the basis for a planet, but didn't.

Ultima Thule is a celestial object made up of two spheres. But Stern said that the phrase Ultima Thule is hundreds, if not a thousand, years old, and is apropos because it means "beyond the known universe" in Latin. "Just because some bad guys once liked the term, we're not going to let them hijack it".

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Instead, they focused on what the new images told them about planetary science.

Ultima Thule may be only 20 miles long and shaped like a dog bone, with a possible small moon attached.

This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and it's the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. It has a rotation period of about 15 hours.

Moore said it appears the two spheres came together gently, at speeds of perhaps 1 or 2 miles per hour - not in some violent collision in space.

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. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said.

"Different kind of rocks", he said.

And the image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft now make it look more like a snowman, minus any facial features.

In addition to providing a clearer image of the object, the new data sent back to Earth from New Horizons has revealed significant information pointing to its origins and appearance.

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