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The scientists running NASA's New Horizons mission showed off the first detailed images Wednesday of an object 4 billion miles away in space.

The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". At this resolution, each pixel of the image is 140 meters on a side.

"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Stern said during a NASA briefing.

"That image is so 2018".

It has now been confirmed Ultima Thule is red in colour, "a lot like the Mordor Macula region of Pluto's large moon, Charon", co-investigator Carly Howett said.

"We were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour".

New Horizons spent 13 years travelling to Ultima Thule's location at the heart of the Kuiper Belt.

First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask NASA to fund a further extension to the mission.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges. The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other".

The new images show Ultima to be a contact binary, consisting of two separate masses that became stuck together. The larger sphere, which is an estimated 12 miles across, has been named "Ultima". The smaller sphere is "Thule", measuring 14 kilometres across.

In March, NASA and the New Horizons team announced their decision to use Ultima Thule as a nickname for the second stop on their solar system tour, which is officially known as 2014 MU69, a formula that designates when it was discovered. Then the balls would have been gently drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, he said. Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist, said the object has a rotation period of approximately 15 hours. Closer to the sun, these building blocks would go on to form Earth, Mars, and all the other planets. New Horizons's journey into the solar system's past has just begun. He called New Horizons "a time machine", capable of taking scientists back to the moment of our origins.

Now they will work to download and look through all of the data sent back over that long distance, a process that could take years. "It's a snowman!" lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control in Laurel. This is something of a mystery, because Ultima Thule is thought to be made mostly of ice.

In response to a reporter's question, Stern addressed the controversy head-on. "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it". Stern said the spacecraft will resume transmitting in mid-January. The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft.

"We have far less than 1 per cent of the data that's stored aboard the solid state recorders on New Horizons, already down on the ground".

What's so special about the Kuiper belt?