It's onward and outward for New Horizons

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Ultima Thule: Clearest image yet of 'snowman' space rock released by NASA

The new images - taken from as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometers) on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres, said NASA.

A NASA probe has beamed back images of an object lying one billion miles past Pluto - and the hi-res images show it looks like a 21-mile-high snowman.

A NASA spacecraft travelling through space sent back pictures of the most distant object explored by mankind on Wednesday.

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".

"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space".

Carly Howett, New Horizons co-investigator, said: 'We can definitively say that Ultima Thule is red'. Over time, these objects likely coalesced, and eventually two of these objects began to spiral close to one another.

In its original use, the term Ultima Thule is ancient, first used during the Roman Empire and also popular during the medieval period, referencing lands that are both very distant and very cold - which the Kuiper Belt object of course is.

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So far, no moons or rings have been detected, and there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos, though there were a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges, scientists said. Before Ultima Thule was intercepted by the New Horizons spacecraft, scientists knew nearly nothing about it, but they were eager for a glimpse of what's thought to be an nearly unchanged relic from our solar system's earliest days. NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months.

The New Horizons team combined a low-resolution color image of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, with sharper black-and-white imagery to produce the composite view at right.

The probe won't start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth.

But even as the researchers celebrated their triumph of celestial navigation, the mission drew unwanted attention for the name Ultima Thule. According to NASA scientists, Ultima Thule is one of the most primitive space objects we've ever observed and may hold key information about the building blocks of our Solar System.

Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions. The images, she said, also showed some brightness variations on the surface, including a brighter area in the neck where the two bodies meet.

This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object.

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