NASA says faraway world Ultima Thule shaped like 'snowman'

That's because the New Horizons spacecraft, which has now traveled some 4 billion miles through our Solar System, finally made its flyby of the most distant object ever studied up close.

New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral nearly exactly 13 years ago in 2006, and previously performed flybys of Jupiter and Pluto in 2007 and 2015 respectively.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

That was when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by a celestial object nicknamed Ultima Thule, which is 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto.

"We will never forget this moment", said May, who led the new year countdown. That's prompted scientists to dub the big one "Ultima" and the small one "Thule". "That's why we chose it", Stern said during a Wednesday press conference. Where yesterday's images showed just a few blurry pixels that looked like a bowling pin, the new photos reveal the rocky world to be more of a "snowman" shape, confirming its identity as a contact binary consisting of two large spheres.

Scientist Jeff Moore says that the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Here, it's unclear if Ultima is a single, peanut-shaped object or two objects stuck together.

The new imagery, dramatic though it may be, is just the tip of the Ultima Thule iceberg.

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While Earthlings partied the year away, the New Horizons spaceship on Tuesday completed its successful flyby-a major milestone for NASA. And it comes with a vivid choker of brightness encircling its slight neck.

"We could not be happier", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said. Out in the Kuiper Belt, reds may result from the irradiation of ices, but that's far from the only possibility. Although over a thousand KBOs already have been discovered (including the most famous KBO, Pluto), Ultima Thule wasn't found until 2014.

These tantalizing tidbits are only the beginning. According to Stern, the team has far less than one percent of all the data now onboard New Horizons in hand. The coming weeks will reveal more about the object's composition and terrain. A similar process is likely happening on Ultima Thule.

"Moments like this are what keep me going", Verbiscer says. It's like, boom, there it is: "a whole new world to explore".

"We think what we're looking at it 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", Moore said during today's news conference.

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