New Horizons reveals Kuiper Belt object is a contact binary

Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

NASA has released the first high-definition images of Ultima Thule - a 20-mile long space rock, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

That data will be sent back over the next year and a half, because the mobile reception isn't exactly great on the further reaches of our solar system.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: 'It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt.

"I'm here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly".

"In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, today New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our Solar System".

Ultima Thule lies in the Kuiper Belt, the punishingly cold region of the Solar System past Neptune.

NASA researchers promised fresh announcements would drop Thursday, including on the composition and atmosphere of Ultima Thule, as new images with even more precise resolution have come through.

"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", Stern says. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", he said.

"The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima Thule from up close".

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At that time the outer fringes of the solar system consisted of "innumerable small particles or pebbles", Moore explained, that slowly coalesced into larger ones.

And the images confirmed what observations using the Hubble Space Telescope had suggested as New Horizons scientists scouted Ultima Thule - that, like parts of Pluto and its moon Charon, it has a rusty hue.

Based on fuzzy images obtained earlier, the scientists had said that Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin.

About thirty minutes after the probe conducted its flyby of Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), the mission controllers were treated to the first clear images ever taken of a KBO.

End to end, the world measures 31 kilometers in length.

Ultima Thule is likely similar to some comets and asteroids that scientists have studied as they pass through the inner solar system.

Time machine: There's more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start. The team has dubbed the larger sphere "Ultima" and the smaller sphere "Thule".

The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Mr Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists. Olkin said the initial data will focus on specific bands that could help scientists identify water ice or other volatiles.

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