Washington: Scientists from NASA’s New Horizons mission have released the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored — the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.
Its remarkable appearance, unlike anything we’ve seen before, illuminates the processes that built the planets four and a half billion years ago, NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.
On January 1, the New Horizons spacecraft zipped past an ancient Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, setting the record for flyby of the most distant planetary object in history.
“This flyby is a historic achievement,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, US.
“Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space. New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation,” Stern added.
The new images taken from as close as 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometres) on approach revealed Ultima Thule as a “contact binary”, consisting of two connected spheres.
According to NASA, end to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometres) in length.
They dubbed the larger sphere “Ultima” (12 miles/19 kilometres across) and the smaller sphere “Thule” (9 miles/14 kilometres across).
The two spheres likely joined as early as 99 per cent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender, NASA said.
Data from the New Year’s Day flyby will continue to arrive over the next weeks and months, with much higher resolution images yet to come.
Located 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, Ultima Thule means “beyond the known world”.
The New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule could help scientists better understand what conditions were like when our solar system formed billions of years ago.
“New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time,” said Jeff Moore, from the New Horizons team.
“Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form – both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy.”
New Horizons’ extended mission also includes observations of more than two-dozen other Kuiper Belt objects, as well as measurements of the plasma, gas and dust environment of the Kuiper Belt.