A NASA spacecraft traveling four billion miles from Earth has sent back its first close-up pictures of the most distant celestial object ever explored, and it looks like a reddish snowman.
Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, is an elongated body about 31 kilometres long, consisting of two fused-together spheres.
NASA’s New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto three-and-a-half years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year’s Day. It is more than a billion kilometres past Pluto, and 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth.
The pictures from Ultima Thule were revealed on Wednesday.
“This flyby is a historic achievement,” Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator said. “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.”
Scientist Jeff Moore says that the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other and stuck together.
“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,” Moore said.