After the New Horizons mission zoomed by the then-unknown Ultima Thule object in the outer Solar System early on New Year’s Day, the spacecraft began returning data to Earth via a deep-space network. Although only about 1 percent of that data is now on the ground, scientists were able to share some top-line findings on Wednesday.
What they have found at a distance of 44 astronomical units (AU) from Earth, or 44 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun, is something of a wonderland. The Ultima Thule object, formally named 2014 MU69, is a 33km-long contact binary that somewhat resembles a snowman. Each of the two components is nearly spherical, coming together at a “neck,” and this has proved important to confirming scientific ideas for how the planets and moons of the Solar System formed. Overall, the object has a reddish hue, similar to the north pole of Pluto’s moon Charon.