Spacecraft beams back first images of most distant object explored by mankind

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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.

It's no simple matter to reach the outer solar system, so NASA is making the most of the opportunity it has with the New Horizons probe. Mission scientists are working on additional funding. The researchers learned that the unexpectedly low variation in the light curve came from the shape-two spheres rotating have a smaller change in their surface area from the spacecraft's point of view than an ellipse would.

While much higher-resolution images will provide a better sense of the topography and geography of 2014 MU69, what is now known is that the bottom, larger lobe ("Ultima") contains changes in elevation greater than one kilometer and that the upper, smaller lobe ("Thule") may contain a plateau feature.

So far, no moons or rings have been detected, and there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos, though there were a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges, scientists said.

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Since the first approach photographs were released (which were pixilated and blurry), the New Horizons team has released new images from the spacecraft that show Ultimate Thule in color and greater detail. Initially, the New Horizon's team believed that the object was a spherical chunk of ice and rock measuring 18-41 km (10-30 mi) in diameter.

The last time we saw Utlima Thule, it was a blur against the blackness of space, something not almost convincing enough of its existence.

If it is indeed a pristine planetesimal, a building block of the planets, studying it will offer clues to how our planet and its neighbours formed. Less than 1% of the data has returned so far.

It showed Ultima Thule, formally known as 2014 MU69, is actually a pair of reddish spheres that have been fused together by gravity, they said. Despite its long journey, the spacecraft is still chugging along and could potentially break through the belt to join NASA's Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft outside our solar system-if the mission is renewed, Space reports. "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it".

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New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft.

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

It was the first exploration of such a primitive - and distant - planetary object in human history. "There's plenty of time to find other targets if we're in a position to having a still-healthy spacecraft, an accepted proposal, and our search is successful", Stern said.

The first detailed picture from Tuesday's flyby of the world reveals a double body shape - or snowman shape as scientists have called it.

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