NASA shares first close-up images of distant Ultima Thule

New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is seen before a news conference after the team received confirmation from the New Horizons spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Ultim

While much higher-resolution images will provide a better sense of the topography and geography of 2014 MU69, what is now known is that the bottom, larger lobe ("Ultima") contains changes in elevation greater than one kilometer and that the upper, smaller lobe ("Thule") may contain a plateau feature.

New Horizons captured the images from a distance of around 50,000 miles from the surface of Ultima Thule.

The team also discovered the region of Ultima Thule corresponding to the snowman's neck is one of its brightest parts, suggesting fine grain material may have rolled there due to steep slopes and gravity. 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.

The first detailed picture from Tuesday's flyby of the world reveals a double body shape - or snowman shape as scientists have called it.

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.

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Dr. Ralph Semmel, Director of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

"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.

"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far", lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. But Stern said that the phrase Ultima Thule is hundreds, if not a thousand, years old, and is apropos because it means "beyond the known universe" in Latin. He said the spacecraft "is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system".

Scientists already expected that the 19-mile-long Ultima Thule had two lobes to it, and even wondered if it was a pair of objects orbiting each other.

The dark object is formed of two spheres which have combined to form one celestial object. After it coasted through, NASA selected Ultima Thule as the next observational target and set a course.

As Helene Winters, New Horizons' Project Manager, indicated, it won't stop there. With the arrival of the photos, they are now calling the bigger sphere Ultima and the smaller one Thule. "It took us nine years just to get to the first target".

"Unfortunately the approach images we're showing you that came down first just aren't conducive to determining whether there are craters on the surface or not", said Mr.

We may never, never reach them.

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