First close-ups of Ultima Thule reveal it resembles snowman


The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". In total, the object is 31 kilometres from one end to the other, with the larger lobe being around 19 km across, and the smaller lobe about 14 km across.

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

"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a NASA briefing. The bowling pin image is "so 2018", joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute. Stern described Ultimate Thule as being about the size of Washington D.C. and as reflective as garden-variety dirt.

The nature of New Horizons' mission provided NASA with a unique opportunity to explore more of the outer solar system after the 2015 main event.

First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask NASA to fund a further extension to the mission. Tholins are also behind the reddish color in a crater on the surface of Pluto's biggest moon, Charon, but scientists say the process behind its deposition on Ultima is likely to be different.

It's estimated that New Horizons flew past this distant object at a closest distance of just 3,500 km! The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other".

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On Wednesday, NASA officials said they "could not be happier" with the latest image of the "snowman", which it said were "separate objects now joined together".

The world is in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt. Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said.

A 15-hour rotation rate has also been established for Ultima Thule.

Moore said "we're basically looking at the first planetesimals", which served as building blocks for what would eventually become planets.

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

"This is what we need to move the models of planetary formation forward", said Alan Stern. Some of the data acquired by New Horizons might shed light on that.

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Another factor is that Ultima is small (about 35km in the longest dimension), and this means it doesn't have the type of "geological engine" that in larger objects will rework their composition.

The accretion process that formed 2014 MU69.

This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object. The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working.

What's so special about the Kuiper belt?

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

In the coming days, weeks and months, NASA scientists will continue to receive new data from New Horizons, revealing Ultima Thule in greater detail.

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