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Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

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Listen to New Horizons, Brian May's first solo single in 20 years

NASA's New Horizons mission has sent back the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored in the solar system, dubbed Ultima Thule, which lies four billion miles away.

Scientists say images from NASA's spacecraft New Horizons show a snowman-like object in the cold, icy part of our solar system.

"It's two completely different objects that are now joined together", said S. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission.

The first detailed images beamed back from the United States agency's New Horizons mission allowed scientists to confidently determine the body was formed when two spheres, or "lobes", slowly gravitated towards each other until they stuck together - a major scientific discovery. It is likely an icy fragment that coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago and that has remained in a deep freeze of the solar system's Kuiper belt ever since, some 4 billion miles from the sun. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.

He debuted it at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., early New Year's Day. It astounded the New Horizons science team, including astrophysicist Brian May.

Ultima Thule is a celestial object made up of two spheres.

Before today, it wasn't known if Ultima Thule was a single object or two objects orbiting one another.

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The ice world known as Ultima Thule has finally been revealed.

"When I first saw the images, I think I probably said "wow" a million times", says Anne Verbiscer, New Horizons' assistant project scientist. The nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as seen by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, has two lobes that appear connected by a narrow "neck" region.

A Google search for "Ultima Thule" found not just references to the Kuiper Belt object and the mission but also a lodge in Alaska, Finnish glassware and an Australian radio show, among other citations.

The 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). Frozen in time, the object may allow NASA to collect data that it hopes can give us further insight into the history and formation of our solar system.

What has got scientists all a-quiver is that the appearance of Ultima Thule seems to confirm theories of planetary accretion, which has specks of dust colliding to form objects with sufficient gravity to attract each other.

We will never forget this moment. It's not fish or fowl.

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".

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