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The new images - taken from as close as 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers) on approach - revealed Ultima Thule as a "contact binary", consisting of two connected spheres.

The New Horizons team combined a low-resolution color image of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, with sharper black-and-white imagery to produce the composite view at right.

In addition to the clip, NASA also shared an artist's rendering, along with a theory about how Ultima Thule could have formed over time, beginning with a rotating cloud of icy bodies.

The distant object that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past January 1 is now taking shape as a body - or bodies - unlike any visited by a spacecraft to date. This is how Ultima Thule is now showing itself to NASA and the rest of the planet from 17,000 miles out: The bowling pin of two days ago has now morphed into a snowman - or BB-8, as the Twitterverse is saying. They also claim that the two spheres are likely to have come together very shortly after the formation of the Solar System.

It's estimated that New Horizons flew past this distant object at a closest distance of just 3,500 km!

Jeff Moore leads the New Horizons' geology team. In total, the object is 31 kilometres from one end to the other, with the larger lobe being around 19 km across, and the smaller lobe about 14 km across.

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.

"I sort of thought we might get that question", mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said after a reporter asked about the name's criticisms during a news conference held today to present the first high-resolution images and preliminary science results from the flyby. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. It zoomed past Pluto - collecting numerous photos and reams of information about the now dwarf planet - in July 2015, and reached Ultima Thule early on New Year's Day.

The ice world also is a relatively dark object, reflecting very little light. It does show the tight, squeezed area of a belt, the small region where the two lobes are in contact.

The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Mr Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists. 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. "It took us nine years just to get to the first target".

And New Horizons' mission isn't over, Stern said.

We may never, never reach them. The comment was greeted with applause by New Horizon team members and their supporters.