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Nasa shows first photo of distant world from New Horizons probe

Nasa shows first photo of distant world from New Horizons probe

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. By their estimates, this would have happened about 4.45 billion years ago, or 50 million years after the Solar System formed. Its nearly nonexistent reflectivity didn't exactly help the New Horizons team as they sought it out.

The "snowman", named Ultima Thule, orbits an area known as the Kuiper Belt. At left is an enhanced colour image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said: "It is only really the size of something like Washington DC and it is about as reflective as garden variety dirt".

The first sharp picture of the "city-sized world" the New Horizons probe travelled 6.5 billion kilometres to explore has been unveiled, to the delight of NASA.

Before that flyby, the only image scientists had was a blurry one showing Ultima Thule┬┤s oblong shape, resembling something like a bowling pin or a peanut.

Thule is estimated to be 9 miles (14 kilometers) across, while Ultima is thought to be 12 miles (19 kilometers).

It comes after an unmanned NASA spacecraft sent a signal back to Earth after making a successful fly-by past the space object - the most distant world ever studied by mankind. 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.

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A few months ago, scientists looking at Ultima Thule from telescopes here on Earth concluded that the asteroid was weirdly elongated, something reinforced by some of the recent photos. So far, no moons or rings have been detected, but even better images will yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.

Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday.

The reddish snowman picture was taken a half-hour before the spacecraft's closest approach early Tuesday, from a distance of about 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers).

"I think we should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a way-back machine set to time zero, that's brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history to the place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".

"I'm surprised that-more or less-picking one Kuiper belt object out of a hat, that we were able to get such a victor as this", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern during a press conference. He added: "We've never seen anything like this before".

"Everything that we're going to tell you [today] is just the tip of the iceberg", Dr Stern said.