NASA releases first high-resolution images of snowman-shaped Ultima Thule

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After trekking 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will now seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets. Ultima Thule is over 40 times farther from the Sun than Earth; this deep in outer space, temperatures clock in around -400 degrees Fahrenheit-and these frigid, Sun-starved conditions can make for fairly pristine preservation.

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again", said Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator.

Besides the improved images, scientists also refined other knowledge of the object.

A NASA probe has beamed back images of an object lying one billion miles past Pluto - and the hi-res images show it looks like a 21-mile-high snowman. "What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented". Later, she added to more applause: "We did it again".

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A most happy New Year to all! Scientists and other team members embraced and shared high-fives, while the spillover auditorium crowd gave a standing ovation.

The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Mr Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists. If Ultima Thule is indeed the product of a rocky rendezvous, that's big news: It provides concrete evidence of early interactions between small, icy bodies on their way to bigger things. But here, the spacecraft was looking down at one of the poles, so essentially the same side of Ultima Thule was facing the spacecraft the entire time.

In an image provided by NASA, the first clear image of the object nicknamed Ultima Thule, beamed back after the New Horizons spacecraft's flyby on January 1, 2019. It's also spinning end over end, although scientists don't yet know how fast.

And there are many more oddities to be explored, scientists said. Many more photos are expected to be released soon. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.

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The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima", which measures 19 km (12 mi) in diameter, and the smaller sphere "Thule" (14 km; 9 mi).

Still, the best color close-ups won't be available until February. At right, the colour has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. "Now being scientists were not all that creative with words so we've chose to do is name one lobe Ultima and the other Thule".

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth. "Being scientists, we not all that creative with words", Stern said. The spacecraft had already included the first reconnaissance of Pluto, completing its closest approach to the planet in 2015.

As Helene Winters, New Horizons' Project Manager, indicated, it won't stop there.

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"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft", she said, "and it will continue after we're long gone here on Earth".