Nasa shows first photo of distant world from New Horizons probe

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

Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

NASA's New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto three-and-a-half years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year's Day.

The scientists now say with confidence that Ultima Thule long ago was two bodies that got stuck together, what they call a "contact binary".

A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule. By contrast, he suggested, scientists did not know for sure whether other two-lobe bodies - most notably the rubber ducky-like Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - were two objects that came together or one larger body that had eroded into its current shape.

It's an fantastic discovery, especially considering that the possibility of Ultima Thule being a binary duo had been floated a number of times over the course of the lengthy New Horizons mission.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: 'It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt.

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It will take almost two years to beam all of the images and data the piano-sized spacecraft collected back to Earth.

By week's end, "Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world, compared to what we're seeing now", Weaver noted.

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 ½ years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.

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.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, the mission's geology manager.

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Scientists think New Horizons has enough fuel to visit one more object in the Kuiper belt within the next decade.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

"The spacecraft is in peak health", said Stern.

The probe had to target Ultima very precisely to be sure of getting it centre-frame in the view of the cameras and other instruments onboard.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said.

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