Scientists show off space snowman, Ultima Thule, in 3D

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Scientists show off space snowman, Ultima Thule, in 3D

Demonstrating a disappointing lack of imagination, scientists have dubbed the larger sphere (12 miles across) "Ultima" and the smaller (nine miles across) "Thule".

Previous observations of Ultima Thule weren't very clear and had been open to interpretation.

The encounter with Ultima Thule (which roughly translates as "beyond the borders of the known world") has set the record for the most distant exploration of an object in the solar system.

This photo is a dramatic improvement on the images we've had in the days before the flyby, and it answers one of the biggest questions scientists have had about the asteroid: Is it one object or two?

The object is similar to a snowman.

Ultima Thule is located in the so-called Kuiper belt - the third layer of the Solar system after the planets and belt inner belt outer gas giants.

What has got scientists all a-quiver is that the appearance of Ultima Thule seems to confirm theories of planetary accretion, which has specks of dust colliding to form objects with sufficient gravity to attract each other.

Data transmission from New Horizons will pause for about a week while the spacecraft passes behind the sun as seen from here on Earth, he said.

Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, said he expects to know within weeks or months, once better images arrive, whether Ultima Thule has any tiny moons or faint, narrow rings. "We had a rough colour from Hubble but now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red", added colleague Carly Howett, also from SwRI. This color is likely owed to the fact that the icy object was irradiated by high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays over billions of years. "This is the first ever pictures of the surface of the asteroid", - said in the message.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by Ultima Thule in the early morning of January 1, at speeds of almost 14 km a second, as several instruments and cameras gathered information.

Scientists speculate that Ultima Thule was originally two separate celestial bodies that eventually merged some 4.5 billion years ago at the birth of our solar system. "It's about the need of mankind to go out there an explore and discover what makes the universe tick and this has been going on since the dawn of time".

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