Ultima Thule is first contact binary to be explored by a spacecraft

Ultima Thule

"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation", said Stern.

Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, was found to consist of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 21 miles (33 kilometers) in length.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern paid tribute to the skill of his team in acquiring the image as New Horizons flew past the object at 3500km at closest approach.

Laurel, Md. - We are getting our first good look at the most distant object ever explored - a piece of rock spinning way out in space.

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

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Just such a nickname - Ultima Thule (pronounced TOOL-ie), for New Horizons' recent flyby target, 2014 MU69 - stirred controversy on Twitter late last night and early today (Jan. 1 and 2).

"#UltimaThule used to be two separate objects".

So how did Ultima Thule form? "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead, said in a statement.

The scientists now say with confidence that Ultima Thule long ago was two bodies that got stuck together, what they call a "contact binary".

So gentle was the initial contact between the two lobes of MU69 that Mr. Moore related it to getting into a fender bender vehicle accident that produces no damage; you wouldn't bother filling out the insurance claim.

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"This is the first object we can clearly tell was born this way, and didn't evolve to look this way", Stern said. "These are the only remaining basic building blocks". At left is an enhanced colour image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. While Earth anxiously sucks in a deep breath of anticipation, scientists have finally determined the color of Ultima Thule. That could be explained if the neck contains fine-grained particles that settle there from both lobes. The center is a higher-resolution image. That color can be explained by irradiation of ices on its surface, said Carly Howett of the Southwest Research Institute.

The spacecraft will continue sending images and other data over the next 20 months.

Also on its way back to Earth are spectral data collected by the spacecraft.

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

"Just because some bad guys once liked that term", he said, "we're not going to let them hijack it". "If there is a connection, it is very tenuous", he said of any Nazi ties to the name, emphasizing the "positive message" of the name. But the Kuiper belt object is so distant and so dim that even the most powerful telescopes saw it only as a flicker of light in the sky.

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