First close-ups of Ultima Thule reveal it resembles snowman

This image from video made available by Nasa shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule

This image from video made available by Nasa shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule

"This mission has always been about delayed gratification", Stern said on Tuesday.

This easing together of the two lobes of 2014 MU69 occurred over 4 billion years ago at speeds between 1 to 2 miles per hour, according to Jeff Moore of the geography and geophysics investigation teams for New Horizons.

Ultima Thule is one of hundreds of thousands of space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit.

The new image, the furthest photo ever taken, answers that question: It's a very dark red, two-lobed object that is 21 miles (33 kilometers) long and 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide.

Nasa's New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto 3 years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year's Day.

What is perhaps most exciting about the final confirmation that 2014 MU69 is a contact binary is that it begins to solidify models of solar system formation and planetary accretion.

The larger sphere is "Ultima" and measures 19 kilometres across.

"This is what we need to move the models of planetary formation forward", said Alan Stern.

"Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy", Moore said. New Horizons has been releasing blurry photos of the object and has detected some weirdness about it, as we've reported-there didn't seem to be any variation in the amount of light it reflected.

On Tuesday (US time), based on early, fuzzy images, scientists said Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin. The smaller sphere is "Thule", measuring 14 kilometres across. The team has still not determined the rotation period. It was the fastest spacecraft ever launched at the time (only recently supplanted by NASA's Parker solar mission), and the fifth manmade object to reach solar escape velocity.

In 2015, the spacecraft passed Pluto, providing the first images of a world once considered our ninth planet. Though it appeared to be bowling pin-shaped, its actual structure has remained hazy until now.

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.

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