NASA spacecraft sends images of icy object past Pluto

Icy Ultima Thule, far beyond Pluto, looks like a snowman

Earlier this week, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by what it says is the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft.

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).

As the new year arrived here on Earth, the team at NASA began receiving the first data from the New Horizons spacecraft confirming it had reached a mysterious object on the outer edge of our solar system.

On Tuesday, based on early, fuzzy images taken the day before, scientists said Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin.

Scientists can also now infer some geological properties of Ultima Thule.

For quite some time, this model has relied heavily on the theory that small pieces of dust in the protoplanetary nebula surrounding the Sun after its birth collided with each other and stuck together to form larger specs of dust. And the metaphors write themselves! Stern said the New Horizons team would start writing scientific papers next week, based on the data already in hand, and nearly certainly propose another mission extension to NASA by 2020.

In a lengthy update by the New Horizons team, the group boasts that New Horizons sent back a signal to its handlers letting them know that it had filled its on-board recorders with a wealth of science data that it collected as it zoomed past Ultima Thule.

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After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects - but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

"#UltimaThule used to be two separate objects". "What we think we're looking at is the end product of a process that probably took place only a few hundred thousand or maybe a few million years at the very beginning of the formation of the solar system", said Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center.

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.

New Horizons, designed by and managed from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, has been speeding toward the edge of the solar system for 13 years. He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule". It does show the tight, squeezed area of a belt, the small region where the two lobes are in contact. At the time, and again today, New Horizons personnel defended the choice, citing its original connotations. It appears not to have any impact craters.

The panchromatic and color images of 2014 MU69.

Mr Stern added: "It's going to just get better and better". But it's a bummer that the New Horizons team is doubling down on the name, despite already knowing about its nefarious second meaning.

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