Photos reveal origin of space rock Ultima Thule, resembling red snowman

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At a January 2 press conference at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here, scientists working on the mission released new images showing that the Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is a "contact binary", two objects touching one another, with an appearance some likened to a snowman.

New images of a mysterious world at the far reaches of our solar system show that it's shaped much like a snowman, with one large icy sphere attached to a smaller one.

"This flyby is a historic achievement", Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator said.

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did to Pluto, coming within 3540 kilometres of it and providing a better look at the surface.

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start. It's like, boom, there it is: "a whole new world to explore".

The spacecraft was designed and built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where it is operated and managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Carly Howett, New Horizons co-investigator, said: 'We can definitively say that Ultima Thule is red'. The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working. Later, she added to more applause: "We did it again".

In addition to learning its true shape, New Horizons also captured color data when it made its close pass. Scientists and other team members embraced and shared high-fives, while the spillover auditorium crowd gave a standing ovation.

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

The New Horizons spacecraft sends the images of Ultima Thule which is an asteroid and is beyond the solar system.

The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". Over time, two larger objects remained and slowly joined together in what scientists called "contact binary". A single body is more likely, they noted. But when better pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

Now they will work to download and look through all of the data sent back over that long distance, a process that could take years.

"This mission's always been about delayed gratification", Stern reminded reporters. "'Beyond the limits of the known world' - that's such a attractive metaphor for what we're doing this year".

Scientists think New Horizons has enough fuel to visit one more object in the Kuiper belt within the next decade.

Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the colour of light brick. 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.

Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions.

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