First detailed NASA images of Ultima Thule reveal 'snowman' shape

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

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

Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, is an elongated body about 31km long, consisting of two fused-together spheres.

After a day in which pictures of a distant space world made it look like a peanut, Nasa has unveiled the first photo from a flyby of Ultima Thule. The broken record was also previously set by the same probe, after it passed Pluto in 2015.

It's a watershed moment for astronomy when no one has closely observed an object this distant before. The smaller one, which is 9 miles across, is "Thule".

The first detailed images beamed back from the U.S. 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.

One of the reasons the area is of such interest to scientists is because of its super low temperatures (it's actually way too cold for snowman building), which has resulted in a preservation that could answer questions about how things came to be.

"This flyby is a historic achievement,"Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement".

That's a pretty big deal for planetary scientists, because Ultima Thule can tell us a lot about what our solar system looked like in its very early years.

This image from video made available by NASA on Wednesday Jan. 2 2019 shows a diagram describing 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. (NAS

The photographs of Ultima Thule, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft, were revealed at a press conference on Wednesday. To be fair though, that's not a bad ETA, considering it's 6.5 million kilometres away.

Even clearer pictures are arriving on Earth in another transmission.

"As we get closer and closer to the target the sun illumination will change", said Jeff Moore, from NASA's Ames center.

The two-lobed object is what is known as a "contact binary". Images prior to Wednesday showed an image like a bowling pin.

Ultima Thule's surface reflects light about as much as "garden variety dirt", he said, as the sun's rays are 1,600 times fainter there than on Earth.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two.

Scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges. 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. "10, No. 4", Ultima Thule was just across the border from the Choctaw Nation in Arkansas and had a post office, blacksmith shop, general store and a gin. "It's something that's completely different".

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