'Snowman' shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed

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The longevity of New Horizon's plutonium battery may even allow it to record its exit from the Solar System.

When asked about the Nazis' use of the term, Showalter confirmed that he was aware of the usage and said that the New Horizons team and NASA, including its legal department, decided that the original meaning was more prominent and outweighed the less savory connotations.

Ultima Thule was formed by the joining of objects orbiting around each other. 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. The larger, 12-mile-wide mass has been nicknamed "Ultima". "These are the only remaining basic building blocks".

"It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world at a news conference.

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

"#UltimaThule used to be two separate objects". "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

Instead, they focused on what the new images told them about planetary science. 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.

There is some dispute among scientists, though, about whether Ultima Thule is the first contact binary seen. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima. Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined.

Scientist Jeff Moore of Nasa's Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago.

So gentle was the initial contact between the two lobes of MU69 that Mr. Moore related it to getting into a fender bender auto accident that produces no damage; you wouldn't bother filling out the insurance claim. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other". "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".

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 passed within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, which lies in the Kuiper Belt some four billion miles from Earth. It is the first inhabitant of the Kuiper belt - the ring of rocky relics that surrounds the outer solar system - that scientists have seen up close.

Ultima Thule is a celestial object made up of two spheres. This finding lends support to a theory of planet formation that suggests worlds are born from slow accumulation, rather than catastrophic collisions, researchers said. "We know this is how many objects like this form".