Just over a day after NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Ultima Thule, scientists have revealed their preliminary findings of the distant object.
Mission scientists said the first science data transmitted back from New Horizons has shown Ultima Thule to actually be two separate objects joined together, making it the first contact binary to be explored by a spacecraft.
NASA is also interested in getting a closer look at the "neck" region of Ultima Thule, which appears much lighter in color than the rest of the surface.
A day ago, scientists released a blurry picture of the small body also known by its official designation 2014 MU69 taken from a distance of half a million miles, taken before the flyby. Mutual gravitational attraction keeps them married despite their gentle, 15-hour rotation.
Jeff Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator from NASA's Ames Research Center, said the pair would have come together at very low speed, at maybe 2-3km/h.
That means that Ultima Thule is likely an object that dates back to the formation of the solar system, as scientists suspects prior to the flyby.
He said the spacecraft "is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system".
Principal Investigator Alan Stern paid tribute to the skill of his team in acquiring the image as New Horizons flew past the object at 3500km at closest approach.
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Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance the color of tiresome brick.
Nasa said that the goal of the New Horizons mission was to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt to study "the origins and outskirts of our solar system". Initially, the New Horizon's team believed that the object was a spherical chunk of ice and rock measuring 18-41 km (10-30 mi) in diameter.
The flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance, with no obvious impact craters, and is dark red.
It consists of two nearly spherical lobes, one with about three times the volume of the other.
This image made available by NASA shows the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule. "This is exactly what we need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward".
Stern expressed surprise, and elation, that after picking the mission target "more or less" out of the hat, "that we were able to get as big a victor as this, that is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".
"The term, Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration, and that's why we chose it", Stern said.
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.