First Clear Picture Of Ultima Thule Reveals Snowman-Like Shape

First Clear Picture Of Ultima Thule Reveals Snowman-Like Shape

First Clear Picture Of Ultima Thule Reveals Snowman-Like Shape

This three-panel drawing depicts the likely scenario for how 2014 MU69 formed, as two different, gravitationally-bound objects formed from solar system debris, and then slowly spiraled in to eventually touch.

"New Horizons swept down over Ultima Thule in a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in space flight", said Stern in a livestream of the press conference on NASA's New Horizons site, and the shot of an elated (which is still an understatement) New Horizons team he put up onscreen spoke for itself. But when better pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged on Wednesday.

"It's a snowman", mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. (Kind of romantic, really.) In a clip shared on Twitter from NASA TV, Ultima Thule-which stretches about 20 miles-looks a bit like a half-melted snowman, although that's admittedly a crude description, as NASA scientists are still analyzing data to determine its properties.

It's estimated that New Horizons flew past this distant object at a closest distance of just 3,500 km! This image was taken by the craft's Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which combines light from the infrared, red and blue channels.

After the news conference, Stern told GeekWire that Ultima Thule and other nicknames relating to 2014 MU69's features would give way to formal names to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but it's too early to say which names would be submitted to the IAU by the New Horizons discovery team.

Around 10 hours after reaching the icy world of Ultima Thule, in the early part of New Year's Day, the New Horizons vessel got in touch with scientists back home. The area begins just beyond the orbit of Neptune, more than 4.4 billion kilometres from the sun, and is believed to extend to about eight billion kilometres from the sun.

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When you look at the whole Test match I think I only bowled 45 (overs), Joshy 40 and Starcy a little bit less than that. Not only at home but they also travel really well.

The new images show Ultima to be a contact binary, consisting of two separate masses that became stuck together.

The new image also resolved the debate about the nature of Ultima Thule.

NASA now expects New Horizons' mission in the Kuiper Belt to run through 2021 at least. It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

Kuiper Belt Objects, of which Pluto is the largest, are especially interesting because they are thought to retain some of the Solar System's original building material, left undisturbed after billions of years. That's right, as New Horizons passed this object, NASA had beamed radar pulses at it, to bounce off at just the right moment, so that New Horizons would pick up the radar reflections. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

As Helene Winters, New Horizons' Project Manager, indicated, it won't stop there.

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