The Pictures are Here! New Horizons Close Up View of 2014 MU69

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

New images and data returned by the New Horizons probe prove Ultima Thule is a snowman-shaped contact binary, the first to be explored by a spacecraft.

The first detailed images beamed back from the United States agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery.

From then on, the mission team was of the mind that Ultima Thule was actually a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an "extreme prolate spheroid") or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching (a close or contact binary).

"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high rate of speed so far away in the abyss of space", he said, referring to the target originally known by the less poetic name 2014 MU69, which dwells in the icy outer region of the solar system beyond Neptune, some 4 billion miles from the sun. "Ultima Thule is the first object that will shed light on those earliest conditions".

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect.

"Just like with Pluto, we could not be happier", Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, said, recalling the spacecraft's 2015 flyby of that world.

Now, scientists have found that Ultima Thule is 19 miles long, and completes its rotation in 15 hours.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object is known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto. The remaining two lobes formed Ultima Thule, and with its material we have a window into the early solar system.

On Tuesday established on premature fuzzy images captured the day before scientists said that Ultima Thule mirrored a bowling pin.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. 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. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other". The comment was greeted with applause by New Horizon team members and their supporters.

The sun is 1,900 times fainter on Ultima Thule than it is on a sunny day on Earth. Occasional astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen Brian May has gifted us with a song in tribute to NASA's successful mission to flyby Ultima Thule.

In its original use, the term Ultima Thule is ancient, first used during the Roman Empire and also popular during the medieval period, referencing lands that are both very distant and very cold - which the Kuiper Belt object of course is.

He added: 'It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science'.

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