Sharper New Horizons photos reveal Ultima Thule as a reddish space "snowman"

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

A new picture returned from USA space agency NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows the little world to be two objects joined together - to give a look like a "snowman".

The New Horizons probe, about the size of a piano, has been flying through space for more than a dozen years and provided the first-ever close-up of Pluto in 2015.

The US space agency's craft, the New Horizons, has been busy investigating it which is no small feat as it's pretty dark that far away from the sun.

"We think what we're looking at is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft, and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system", Mr Moore said.
But in the Kuiper belt, the region of icy bodies beyond Neptune, they formed but did not evolve further, said Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and the mission's geology lead. To astronomers' surprise, images from the New Year's Day flyby reveal that Ultima Thule is a "contact binary", which means it consists of two connected spheres that were previously separated but now joined together.

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.

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". Tholins are also behind the reddish color in a crater on the surface of Pluto's biggest moon, Charon, but scientists say the process behind its deposition on Ultima is likely to be different.

Before that flyby, the only image scientists had was a blurry one showing Ultima Thule's oblong shape, resembling something like a bowling pin or a peanut.

Scientists can also now infer some geological properties of Ultima Thule.

And here's the rough image we had of Ultima Thule yesterday so that you can really see the differences in resolution. The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere "Thule" (9 miles/14 kilometers across).

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (centre) of the Southwest Research Institute celebrates the breakthrough with other mission team members.

As the New Horizons team still awaits more detailed images of MU69, New Horizons will continue to journey deeper into space.

Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.

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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