NASA has published the first batch of results from the New Horizons’ Kuiper Belt object flyby that took place on January 1, 2019. Only about 10-percent of the data from that flyby has been transmitted back to researchers on Earth, but the findings have been shared in a study published on May 17. According to the space agency, the object — which is nicknamed Ultima Thule — is ‘far more complex than expected.’
The Kuiper Belt object is officially named 2014 MU69, but is more often referred to as Ultima Thule. The object has an unusual shape resulting from the ‘gentle merger’ of two previously independent bodies that attach at a juncture point NASA calls ‘the neck.’ The object is located around four billion miles from Earth and holds the distinction as the most distant object humans have ever explored.
NASA paints a striking profile of Ultima Thule, explaining that the object is about 22 miles long with a contact binary arrangement, two very different lobe shapes, and an overall appearance that — though still mysterious — likely points at whatever caused the formation billions of years ago. NASA calls the strange shape an ‘unanticipated mystery’ that may one day be unraveled by additional data.
The two space objects were likely tidally locked, gradually slowing over a long period of time before ultimately joining together into the Ultima Thule we see today. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern explained, “We’re looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past.”
The study sheds some light on the object’s unique features, including the presence of a large depression measuring about 5 miles wide, ‘hills and troughs,’ and smaller pits that may have formed due to sublimation or some other type of material change. As the image above shows, Ultima Thule has a distinct reddish color, with NASA stating that it is the reddest object ever visited by humans in the outer solar system.
This is only the start of what we know about this Kuiper Belt object. NASA explains that data from the New Horizons flyby will continue to trickle in over coming months leading up to summer 2020. At this time, the New Horizons spacecraft is located around 4.1 billion miles from Earth, traveling deeper into the Kuiper Belt at around 33,000 mph.