NASA releases New Horizons' first clear image of 'snowman' Ultima Thule

Here's Our First Image Of Ultima Thule, The 'Most Distant Object Ever Visited By A Spacecraft' - Digg

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Stern said the New Horizons team would start writing scientific papers next week, based on the data already in hand, and nearly certainly propose another mission extension to NASA by 2020. With any luck, upcoming projects like the James Webb Space Telescope will further expand our understanding of the universe.

The scientists running NASA's New Horizons mission showed off the first detailed images Wednesday of an object 4 billion miles away in space.

The object has two lobes, with the larger one now taking the name Ultima and the smaller becoming Thule.

Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.

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The first clear image of Ultima Thule shows what looks like a celestial snowman, a frozen world 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.

Scientists won't know what substances cover its surface until they process more data that was expected to arrive on Earth on Wednesday, but they speculated it could be methane, nitrogen or other organic material. At its closest, the probe will capture images with a resolution of around 35 meters per pixel.

NASA now expects New Horizons' mission in the Kuiper Belt to run through 2021 at least. The object is a boring red color, and looks friendly enough. "And in the last 36 hours, NASA and New Horizons have collected more data about the formation of the solar system, in particular the planetesimals in the Kuiper Belt, that now let us choose between models or tell which models are more likely to be right than others". It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

During the run-up to today's news conference, a buzz broke out on Twitter over the fact that the term "Ultima Thule", which in ancient times denoted a place beyond the known world, became a part of Nazi mythology.

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"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.
It zoomed past Pluto - collecting numerous photos and reams of information about the now dwarf planet - in July 2015, and reached Ultima Thule early on New Year's Day.

The object looked sort of looked like a fuzzy bowling pin. Initially, the New Horizon's team believed that the object was a spherical chunk of ice and rock measuring 18-41 km (10-30 mi) in diameter.

NASA shared a graphic showing how an object like Ultima Thule forms: "as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine". Then the spheres slowly spiralled closer to each other and stuck together.

Though they do not appear to have impact craters, there could be hills and ridges, with the neck connecting the two lobes being one of the steepest slopes.

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In the coming weeks and months, data from the New Horizons' flyby will continue to be received by the mission controllers.

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