NASA New Horizons image shows weird Ultima Thule looks like a snowman

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The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima. At this resolution, each pixel of the image is 140 meters on a side.

The initial "bowling pin" image. The bowling pin image is "so 2018", joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute.

"It's only really the size of something like Washington DC and it's about as reflective as garden-variety dirt, and it's illuminated by a sun that's 1,900 times fainter than it is outside on a sunny day here on the Earth", he said.

The Kuiper Belt body also has an extremely low surface reflectivity, with the New Horizons team likening it to dark potting soil in a garden. The image on the right combines the tow to give us a clearer view in color. Scientists say no impact craters could be seen in the latest photos.

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. Stern said the thing that was most surprising about the experience was "picking a Kuiper Belt object out of a hat" and then finding out that the team had picked a victor. That means its two lobes are separate objects that have joined together. The smaller, 9-mile-wide mass was given the nickname "Thule". Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said.

Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. "What we're looking at is basically the first planetesimals", Moore said.

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"Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy". It takes a long time for data to travel million of miles across space - and the first images downloaded by NASA scientists showcased only a fuzzy peanut-like shape.

"This mission has always been about delayed gratification", Stern said on Tuesday.

New Horizons should have just enough fuel reserves to be able to do this.

Nevertheless, Ultima Thule isn't the object's official name - a formal name will need to be proposed to the International Astronomical Union.

In response to a reporter's question, Stern addressed the controversy head-on.

The accretion process that formed 2014 MU69.

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"Just because some bad guys once liked that term", he said, "we're not going to let them hijack it". The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working. NASA said during today's press conference that better lighting and closer proximity to the target will result in much improved images.

It'll take another 20 months to download all the data from the Ultima flyby.

The distant object that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past January 1 is now taking shape as a body - or bodies - unlike any visited by a spacecraft to date.

The MU69 story is only starting to unfold, Stern added.

What's so special about the Kuiper belt?

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