The Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, encountered by the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: AP

LAUREL, Maryland. A couple of days before the New Horizons spacecraft made its flyby of a small, icy world far beyond Pluto, scientists working on the mission finally got a picture of the body, nicknamed Ultima Thule, that was more than a single dot. It looked a bit elongated, but that was really all that could be detected from the image.

“I’ve never seen so many people so excited about two pixels,” said S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the mission, during a news conference Monday.

Two days later, the scientists unveiled images from the flyby with some 28,000 pixels. They could finally make out some meaningful details, which could eventually advance scientific understanding of the solar system’s earliest days.

The New Horizons team will have to wait 20 months for all of the spacecraft’s data and images to return to Earth, but here is what they’ve learnt so far.

It’s a snowman (or BB-8)

Ultima Thule, known also by its official designation of 2014 MU69, turns out to be what planetary scientists call a “contact binary” — two bodies that formed separately and then gently touched and stuck together. It’s a bit more than 33.9km long. To label the two parts, the scientists named the larger one Ultima and the smaller one Thule.

This image from video made available by NASA on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. Image Credit: AP

The New Horizons scientists described it as a snowman, but people on Twitter noticed a resemblance to a robot character from recent “Star Wars” movies.

At Thursday’s news conference, scientists released a stereo image of the asteroid giving a somewhat better sense of this shape.

It looks as old and pristine as scientists hoped

Planetary scientists are intrigued by the region known as the Kuiper belt — the home of Ultima Thule and other objects — because it is perhaps the only place where some of the solar system’s earliest building blocks are preserved.

The lack of sharp corners and apparently smooth surface of Ultima Thule suggests that it has not changed much in the past 4.5 billion years. What the scientists find there could tell them a lot about how the sun and planets formed.

Member of old classicals

Color measurements confirm that Ultima Thule is reddish like many objects in the outer solar system. Indeed, in hue, it is an unremarkable member of what astronomers call cold classicals, which all seem to have remained pristine and undisturbed since they formed.

“It displays an average colour that falls well within the average colours displayed by the cold classical Kuiper belt objects,” said Silvia Protopapa, a member of the science team, during a news conference Thursday.

The two lobes, Ultima and Thule, are the same shade of red, suggesting that they formed near each other before merging. The “neck” where the lobes connect is brighter and less red, which could indicate bits of debris that slid down the slopes.

Rotation rate

In the past five months, as New Horizons approached Ultima Thule, the spacecraft looked for rhythmic variations in the brightness that would reveal how fast the body was rotating. However, the brightness seemed to remain steady.

New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, speaks about new data received from the New Horizons spacecraft during a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, Image Credit: AP

They now know that the spacecraft is roughly looking down at one of Ultima Thule’s poles, so that it is mostly the same side of the body that was always facing the spacecraft.

With the world’s two lobes now visible, the mission’s scientists can finally calculate a rotation rate: once every 15 hours, give or take an hour.

No craters or moons

Scientists have not spotted any craters yet, but that does not mean there are none. In the images seen so far, the sun is behind the spacecraft and thus shadows would not be visible, hiding the topography. Higher resolution images should be more revealing.

Also not seen yet are any moons or rings. The researchers are also looking for an atmosphere, although they do not expect to find one.

The prediction of New Horizons’ closest approach to Ultima Thule was off by only 2 seconds. By contrast, for the spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto in 2015, the prediction was off by about 80 seconds. Even though Ultima Thule is smaller and farther away, the navigators were able to plot a more precise course this time, because in 2017 and 2018, astronomers on the mission team were able to pin down Ultima Thule’s location by observing the object passing in front of a few distant stars.

At closest approach, at two seconds after 12:33am, New Horizons was just less than 3,541km from Ultima Thule, travelling at 51,965km/h.