New Horizons survived its flyby of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule is over 40 times farther from the Sun than Earth; this deep in outer space, temperatures clock in around -400 degrees Fahrenheit-and these frigid, Sun-starved conditions can make for fairly pristine preservation.

Ultima Thule's surface reflects light about as much as "garden variety dirt", he said, as the sun's rays are 1,600 times fainter there than on Earth. The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other".

Scraps of information about Ultima Thule can be found on the web. New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral back in 2006 on a primary mission to explore Pluto.

The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", Stern said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists. This is what is known as a "binary", or more specifically a "contact binary".

The first color image (left) of Ultima Thule, snapped by New Horizons' Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). "It took us 12 years to sell it". Having formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system taking shape, it is also the most primitive object seen up close like this.

So far, no moons or rings have been detected.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute and so forth have begun analyzing all aspects of Ultima Thule, including its most basic elements - like its number of hills, ridges, impact craters, etcetera. Better images should yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.

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Prior to today, images of Ultima Thule were only a handful of pixels across, leaving the object's true physique ambiguous. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.

The images captured from the distance as close as 17,000 miles (27,000 kilometers)-reveal that the Ultima Thule is formed with two connected spheres.

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.

It's neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather "a primordial planetesimal".

If confirmed, this configuration could represent a precious snapshot of planetary formation in action, supporting the idea that the massive, orbiting bodies in our inner solar system assembled in part through the rapid coalescing of pebbles and dust. This would indicate that Ultima Thule's either never had a run-in with another space body and/or was broken off of some other larger body of material so recently that no major added damage has yet occurred. "It's something that's completely different".

Still, he said, when all the data comes in, "there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can't figure out".

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