Ultima Thule's 'snowman' shape revealed

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In March, NASA and the New Horizons team announced their decision to use Ultima Thule as a nickname for the second stop on their solar system tour, which is officially known as 2014 MU69, a formula that designates when it was discovered. It takes a long time for data to travel million of miles across space - and the first images downloaded by NASA scientists showcased only a fuzzy peanut-like shape. The first batch that scientists revealed Wednesday was only a taste, but it was a tantalizing one, they said.

First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask NASA to fund a further extension to the mission. NASA said the joining of the two objects illuminates the processes that built the planets billions of years ago.

Ultima Thule likely formed as a rotating cloud of small, icy objects started to combine.

"We have far less than 1 percent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders", says Alan Stern, principal investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission.

Ultima Thule orbits the Sun with a period of some 295 years! Scientists think that Ultima was formed by two separate entities coming together in a gentle kiss.

As Helene Winters, New Horizons' Project Manager, indicated, it won't stop there. In 2015, the spacecraft passed Pluto, providing the first images of a world once considered our ninth planet.

The two bodies came together at a very low speed, he said, on the order of a few kilometers per hour, slow enough to preserve each object. He joked: "If you had a collision with another auto at those speeds you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms".

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This is consistent with other irradiated objects that are in the Kuiper Belt, Carly Howett, mission co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, said yesterday. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".

"Different kind of rocks", he said.

Detailed images beamed back from the New Horizons spacecraft showed that Ultima Thule, which lies some 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away from Earth, being composed of two spheres, or "lobes". Flight controllers say everything looked good for New Horizons' flyby of the tiny, icy object, 3 ½ years after its encounter with Pluto.

This is expected that astronomical history has to record many wonders this year.

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets. Ultima Thule is a Latin phrase that means "a place beyond the known world", but it was also adopted by Nazis to refer to the birthplace of the Aryan race.

The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

"I'm surprised that, more or less picking one Kuiper Belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", he said.