Ultima Thule was once two separate space rocks that joined together, known as a contact binary. He called New Horizons "a time machine", capable of taking scientists back to the moment of our origins.
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The flow of images and scientific insights is expected to get stronger in the days, weeks and months ahead, as the spacecraft sends back several gigabytes of stored data at a rate of 1,000 bits per second. The first batch that scientists revealed Wednesday was only a taste, but it was a tantalizing one, they said.
Early images show that Ultima Thule is about 31 kilometers by 19 kilometers.
Its remarkable appearance, unlike anything we've seen before, illuminates the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago. "These are the only remaining basic building blocks". He said he thought it would be hard because he couldn't "think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule". "It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control in Laurel.
"Everything that we're going to tell you [today] is just the tip of the iceberg", Dr Stern said.
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This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. It is the first contact binary NASA has ever explored. The mission team named the larger object "Ultima" and the smaller one "Thule". More than 100 scientists, including Heidi B. Hammel, a planetary scientist and a media liaison for the science team, gathered at 8 p.m. for a look. "If you had a collision with another auto at those speeds, you may not even bother to fill out the insurance forms", he said.
The two bodies came together at a very low speed, he said, on the order of a few kilometers per hour, slow enough to preserve each object. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward". He described watching his colleagues jump out of their seats and embrace one another upon seeing the compelling, crystal clear image.
For a half-year, the New Horizons team had puzzled over the possible shape of MU69, which was little more than an oblong dot in Hubble Space Telescope images. It is more than a billion kilometres past Pluto, and 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth.
During the run-up to today's news conference, a buzz broke out on Twitter over the fact that the term "Ultima Thule", which in ancient times denoted a place beyond the known world, became a part of Nazi mythology. That's why it already holds such lessons about the formation of the planets. "What we're looking at is basically the first planetesimals", Moore said. "We know that this is how these kinds of objects in many cases form".
He added that if there was any shock from the Ultima Thule fly-by, it was how fortunate the scientists were for finding it in the Kuiper Belt.