NASA New Horizons image shows weird Ultima Thule looks like a snowman

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

A NASA spacecraft 4 billion miles from Earth yielded its first close-up pictures Wednesday of the most distant celestial object ever explored, depicting what looks like a reddish snowman.

"It's two completely different objects that are now joined together", said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission. Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft.

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.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, passed Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

The US space agency's craft, the New Horizons, has been busy investigating it which is no small feat as it's pretty dark that far away from the sun.

It's no simple matter to reach the outer solar system, so NASA is making the most of the opportunity it has with the New Horizons probe.

"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", he said.

For more on New Horizons and its historic journey through the Solar System, watch "Pluto and Beyond", premiering tonight at 9 p.m. ET / 8 p.m CT on PBS.

About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of boring brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions. "This is a very dark object", says Cathy Olkin, the mission's deputy project scientist. Data that New Horizons collected as it approached its target suggested that Ultima Thule was bowling-pin-shaped and spinning like a propellor.

Mission organizers have been criticized for calling the object by a name that Nazis used for the mythical birthplace of the Aryan race.

And here's the rough image we had of Ultima Thule yesterday so that you can really see the differences in resolution.

Another camera captured a color view, revealing that Ultima is definitely red, said Carly Howett, a New Horizons science team member from the Southwest Research Institute.

The first color image of Ultima Thule.

Besides the improved images, scientists also refined other knowledge of the object.

Images also revealed that the two lobes have a mottled appearance.

"This is the first object that we can clearly tell was born this way" Stern said, instead of evolving as a sort of "bi-lobe".

Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions.

The mission team has chose to call the larger lobe "Ultima" and the smaller lobe "Thule".

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