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


It even has a BB-8ish orangish-reddish color theme going on. A NASA spacecraft opened the New Year at the most distant world ever explored, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

This are only the first images from the probe, captured at a resolution of about 140 meters per pixel.

The initial "bowling pin" image.

"That image is so 2018".

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.

The New Horizons team combined a low-resolution color image of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, with sharper black-and-white imagery to produce the composite view at right. The "neck" between the two lobes is particularly bright, perhaps because small, reflective particles tumbled into its crevasse, said Cathy Olkin, a deputy project scientist and planetary scientist at SwRI.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance, with no obvious impact craters, and is dark red.

During a 2015 fly-by, the probe found Pluto to be slightly larger than previously thought.

Stern, Bowman and other key players soon joined their friends in the auditorium, where the celebration continued and a news conference took place.

The two spheres spiralled closer to each other and eventually got stuck together. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima". The smaller, 9-mile-wide mass was given the nickname "Thule". Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said.

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He added that if there was any shock from the Ultima Thule fly-by, it was how fortunate the scientists were for finding it in the Kuiper Belt.

This means we're truly seeing one of the first planetesimals, or objects, that went on to form planets.

Light travel time back to the Earth was expected to be some six hours as we await the images that will hopefully be coming in from this distant remnant of the creation of the solar system!

"This is just the tip of the iceberg", Stern said.

And in case you were wondering, New Horizons will never match the Voyagers in terms of distance travelled from Earth. As a whole, the little world measures 19 miles (30.5 km) long.

In response to a reporter's question, Stern addressed the controversy head-on.

Jeff Moore leads the New Horizons' geology team. Scientists have had to wait for the data to come back, a slow process that will continue in the days and months ahead.

Less than 1 percent of all the data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby has been downlinked to Earth. "That's why we chose it".

What's so special about the Kuiper belt?

"We are seeing a physical representation of the beginnings of planetary formation, frozen in time", Moore said.