Ultima Thule emerges as contact binary, "cosmic snowman", in new spacecraft images

This image made available by NASA on Wednesday Jan. 2 2019 shows the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft encountered it on Tuesday Jan. 1 2019

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.

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. Together they form Ultima Thule, a frozen world that is almost 4.5 billion miles from Earth, more distant than Pluto.

"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 when better pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

Early observations of Ultima Thule taken by New Horizons suggested that the rock is rather elongated and shaped somewhat like a bowling pin.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. This has, in turn, set off a buzz about an Ultima Thule much closer to home, in Sevier County to be precise.

New Horizons spent 13 years travelling to Ultima Thule's location at the heart of the Kuiper Belt.

"It is likely the the end of next year or the beginning of 2021 before we receive that approval, and then we start a search for the target", he said.

"We have far less than one percent of the data that's stored on (New Horizons)", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said at a press conference Wednesday.

Researchers believe the spheres were formed from two rotating clouds of smaller chunks of ice and pebbles that coalesced.

Slowing turning, they eventually touched at each other at what mission geology manager Jeff Moore called an "extremely slow speed" - maybe just one to a few miles per hour.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute suggest that Ultima Thule is 21 miles (33km) long at its longest, and it is now rotating. So far, no moons or rings have been detected, but even better images will yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead. Scientists say no impact craters could be seen in the latest photos.

Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other". It's not fish or fowl.

"I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign", Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming process, told me at Newsweek in March.

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