NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

The first sharp picture of the "city-sized world" the New Horizons probe travelled 6.5 billion kilometres to explore has been unveiled, to the delight of NASA.

The images don't yet reveal much information about topography given the sun angle at the time New Horizons took the image, on approach to Ultima Thule at a distance of about 50,000 kilometers.

As the new year arrived here on Earth, the team at NASA began receiving the first data from the New Horizons spacecraft confirming it had reached a mysterious object on the outer edge of our solar system.

New Horizons Principal Investigator, Alan Stern said, "Let me say that bowling pin is gone".

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Dr. Ralph Semmel, Director of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Why it matters: The last few years have been incredibly exciting for space exploration thanks to successful missions from probes like Cassini and New Horizons. The smaller one, which is 9 miles across, is "Thule".

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of tiresome brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions. The object consists of two fused-together spheres, one three times bigger than the other.

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The Queen guitarist, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, wrote a song called New Horizons, his first solo work in more than 20 years.

Future images sent back to earth will be of a higher quality as they will have been taken closer to the object and will benefit from better sunlight. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. The brightness of the stars was subtracted from the final image using a separate photo from September 2017, before the object itself could be detected.

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start.

"They're clearly two objects that have come together", says New Horizons' Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin. He explains that Ultima Thule appears to be a basic planetary building block that was left over and is still lying around "the backyard of the solar system".

The two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender, said the team. He added: "We've never seen anything like this before. It's something that's completely different".

Stern expressed surprise, and elation, that after picking the mission target "more or less" out of the hat, "that we were able to get as big a victor as this, that is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".

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