New Horizons is named after the New Horizon space probe, and premiered on NASA TV on New Years Day, to coincide with the probe passing Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt, an object located a billion miles beyond Pluto, and the most distant rock ever to be visited by the human race.
Yesterday, Principal Investigator Alan Stern said that if he had to bet, his money would be on 2014 MU69 being a single object - a prediction agreed to by others on the panel. This union was not violent; the two bodies came together at about walking speed, in a meetup more akin to a spacecraft docking than to a collision, said Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center, the leader of New Horizons' geology and geophysics team. The team released an image taken before the flyby while the spacecraft was still some one million miles from Ultima Thule.
New Horizons launched in 2006 and flew by its initial target, Pluto, in 2015.
NASA during a press conference on Wednesday shared the clearest images yet of Ultima Thule, the furthest object ever explored by a spacecraft.
The larger sphere is "Ultima" and measures 19 kilometres across.
What is perhaps most exciting about the final confirmation that 2014 MU69 is a contact binary is that it begins to solidify models of solar system formation and planetary accretion.
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"The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima Thule from up close". Despite its long journey, the spacecraft is still chugging along and could potentially break through the belt to join NASA's Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft outside our solar system-if the mission is renewed, Space reports. The larger lobe is the "bottom" sphere and the smaller lobe is the "upper" sphere.
The neck area is also sloped enough that objects and fine grain elements can tumble or roll down the slopes and settle in the valley where the two lobes meet - something which likely explains the higher albedo seen in the data thus far returned from New Horizons.
"Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement". The left image is color-enhanced.
The images released so far are "just the tip of the iceberg", he said, adding only 1% of data stored on the spacecraft has now been received by scientists.
"That bowling pin is gone - it's a snowman if anything at all", Mr Stern said during a NASA briefing.