Probe brings far-out cosmic snowman into focus

2014 MU69 / Ultima Thule

The latest view from NASA’s New Horizons probe shows an icy object known as 2014 MU69 or as Ultima Thule to consist of two balls of icy material stuck together. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Photo)

LAUREL, Md. — The New Horizons spacecraft’s picture of an icy object 4 billion miles from Earth became a lot clearer today, and took on a surprisingly familiar shape.

“It’s a snowman,” mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It even has a BB-8ish orangish-reddish color theme going on.

Today’s imagery, derived from data sent back to Earth on the previous day, literally casts a whole new light on the 19-mile-long object — which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by the nickname given by the New Horizons team, Ultima Thule (“Ul-ti-ma Too-lay”).

The views were captured by the piano-sized probe’s high-resolution camera from a distance of roughly 18,000 miles, a half-hour before the time of close approach on New Year’s Day. Two black-and-white pictures were released, with a resolution as fine as 140 meters (460 feet) per pixel.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

About Alan Boyle

Award-winning science writer, creator of Cosmic Log, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.
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