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"We think what we are looking at is perhaps the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft", Moore says, "and may represent a class of objects which are the oldest and most primitive objects that can be seen anywhere in the present solar system". This "localized swarm", he says, created two separate orbs, each around 10 miles in diameter.

At a news conference Wednesday, scientists working with NASA's New Horizons mission released several images that the spacecraft took as it flew by Tuesday.

Among other things, Ultima Thule has been compared to a giant space turtle, a fat bowling pin and "Kenny from South Park".

"That image is so 2018". Stern described Ultimate Thule as being about the size of Washington D.C. and as reflective as garden-variety dirt. Ultima Thule rotates about once every 15 hours, the scientists determined. Color images show that Ultima Thule is reddish.

The object itself is as dark as potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist from the Southwest Research Institute.

During a 2015 fly-by, the probe found Pluto to be slightly larger than previously thought. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima". The smaller sphere is "Thule", measuring 14 kilometres across. Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said.

"This is the first object we can clearly tell was born this way, and didn't evolve to look this way", Stern said.

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Jeff Moore, the mission's team lead for geology and geophysics, likened New Horizons to a time machine, taking scientists back to the birth of the solar system. It takes a long time for data to travel million of miles across space - and the first images downloaded by NASA scientists showcased only a fuzzy peanut-like shape. Some of the data acquired by New Horizons might shed light on that.

In response to a reporter's question, Stern addressed the controversy head-on. It was also a vast improvement over images snapped the day before, which provided more hints about Ultima Thule's shape and rotation.

This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006.

In a gorgeous new image delivered by New Horizons we can see that Ultima Thule is actually two rocks of differing sizes flying in tandem and touching.

The MU69 story is only starting to unfold, Stern added. The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft.

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Dr. Ralph Semmel, Director of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.


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