New Horizons reveals a 'snowman' at the edge of the solar system

Here's Our First Image Of Ultima Thule, The 'Most Distant Object Ever Visited By A Spacecraft' - Digg

From then on, the mission team was of the mind that Ultima Thule was actually a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an "extreme prolate spheroid") or two objects orbiting very closely together or touching (a close or contact binary). Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It's been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings.

After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. "It will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth".

Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule.

It's a moment that could define the future, but the name "Ultima Thule" is one from the past.

Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft. In the early solar system, many asteroids like Ultima Thule combined in the inner solar system to form the Earth and other rocky planets, so exploring Ultima Thule can give us a better understanding of what that environment looked like.

Images also revealed that the two lobes have a mottled appearance. In 2015, the spacecraft passed Pluto, providing the first images of a world once considered our ninth planet.

"We have far less than one percent of the data that's stored on [New Horizons]", spacecraft lead Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said at a press conference Wednesday.

"This object, which we can now see is a contact binary, used to be two separate objects that are now bound together", NASA wrote on Twitter.

Scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges. 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. Even at the speed of light, signals from the outer solar system take a long time to reach Earth; however, the pictures were well worth the wait.

"This mission has always been about delayed gratification", Stern said on Tuesday. It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

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