NASA probe nears distant area rock for landmark flyby

Ultima Thule

A NASA spacecraft 4 billion miles from Earth yielded its first close-up pictures Wednesday of the most distant celestial object ever explored, depicting what looks like a reddish snowman.

The new images - taken from as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometers) on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres, said NASA.

NASA is also interested in getting a closer look at the "neck" region of Ultima Thule, which appears much lighter in color than the rest of the surface.

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

The two spheres spiralled closer to each other and eventually got stuck together.

Ultima Thule, a name that was nominated by 40 people, won the public poll.

Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.

Jeff Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator from NASA's Ames Research Center, said the pair would have come together at very low speed, at maybe 2-3km/h.

"What we think we're looking at is the end product of a process that took place at the very beginning of the formation of the solar system", Moore said.

New Horizons will get even more up close and personal with Ultima soon - as soon as tomorrow - with at least one image expected to come in at nearly 200 miles per pixel.

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John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the folks responsible for ensuring the New Horizons probe shot past Ultima Thule at just the right time, said the images provide new insight into how planets are formed.

The team determined its colour by combining a sharp black and white image with a less-defined, but coloured, photograph.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: "It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt".

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges.

New Horizons was launched in 2006 on a mission to fly by Pluto. Together they form Ultima Thule, a frozen world that is almost 4.5 billion miles from Earth, more distant than Pluto. At around 4.1 billion miles from Earth, it takes roughly six hours for radio signals from the probe to reach Earth.

It's called Ultima Thule and it lies about a billion miles beyond Pluto.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". "It's going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".

He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule".

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start.

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