MU69 revealed as a contact binary in first New Horizons data returns

MU69 revealed as a contact binary in first New Horizons data returns

MU69 revealed as a contact binary in first New Horizons data returns

NASA is also interested in getting a closer look at the "neck" region of Ultima Thule, which appears much lighter in color than the rest of the surface. The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s while the spacecraft systems are still working.

"We should think of New Horizons as a time machine", said Jeff Moore, the mission's lead geology and geophysics scientist. The mission team is now calling the larger one "Ultima" and the smaller one "Thule".

Released by NASA, this is the first colour image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 137,000 kilometres and highlighting its reddish surface.

"New Horizons swept down over Ultima Thule in a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in space flight", said Stern in a livestream of the press conference on NASA's New Horizons site, and the shot of an elated (which is still an understatement) New Horizons team he put up onscreen spoke for itself. At right, the colour has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the colour uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. A second batch of photos released Wednesday was more clear, prompting mission scientists to narrow their description from "bowling pin" to "snowman", AP reports. The previous mark was also set by New Horizons when it flew past the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015.

This three-panel drawing depicts the likely scenario for how 2014 MU69 formed, as two different, gravitationally-bound objects formed from solar system debris, and then slowly spiraled in to eventually touch.

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of tiresome brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where New Horizons is operated, were up late, working to transform those bits of data into the first high-resolution image of a Kuiper belt object.

In addition to learning its true shape, New Horizons also captured color data when it made its close pass.

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Instead, the first images beamed down from the spacecraft show it resembles a snowman - or even the BB-8 droid robot from the "Star Wars" film series.

"The primary association of Thule and Ultima Thule are with travel and exotic places and cold places - it's associated with travel gear, it's associated often with distant places in Greenland", he told Newsweek.

"I'm surprised that, more or less picking one Kuiper Belt object out of the hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", he said.

The object looked sort of looked like a fuzzy bowling pin.

Moore said it appears the two spheres came together gently, at speeds of perhaps 1 or 2 miles per hour - not in some violent collision in space.

It will take as long as 20 months for scientists to download and process all the data collected during their brief encounter with Ultima Thule, scientists said.

Data and images will continue to come in throughout the day, with more announcements to come soon.

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