It's a new, strange world.
The space exploration ship New Horizons has sent back the first detailed images of an ancient world more than 4 billion kilometers from Earth, officially known as the 2014 MU69. The clearest look of MU69 shows that it is shaped like a snowman and has two roundish lobes fused together.
It is by far the most distant world ever explored by a spacecraft – and therefore humanity as well.
"What this spacecraft and this team have achieved is unprecedented," said Alan Stern, senior investigator for the New Horizons mission, on Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
New Horizons – which had previously unveiled Pluto's majesty in 2015 – crashed only 200 kilometers from the surface of the MU69, which was temporarily called Ultima Thule (the International Association of Astronomers will eventually give MU69 its official name).
However, these pictures are not of this absolute approximation. In the coming days and weeks, New Horizons will continue to broadcast more images showing more details and closer views of the object.
"Stay tuned," said Jeff Moore, head of New Horizons geology team, on Wednesday.
MU69 is of great interest to scientists. This world lies in a faraway group of objects, the Kuiper Belt, orbiting the Solar System. Temperatures are approaching absolute zero (minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit), which is as cold as it gets. Therefore, scientists suspect that these ancient objects have been preserved relatively untouched since the dawn of the still-shaping solar system some 4 billion years ago.
MU69 is like looking into the past of the solar system.
Moore believes that MU69 is made up of small icy bodies that are about 4.5 billion years old. Over time, these objects probably merged and eventually two of these objects began to rotate close together. One day they touched each other. Now they are hanging together.
The foundation of MU69. MU69 is like looking at some of the "only remaining building blocks of the solar system," Moore said.
And, as the team at New Horizons suspected, this world is indeed reddish, probably made up of various types of ice that have been exposed to space radiation for billions of years.
"Now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red," said Carly Howett, a planet scientist from New Horizons.
A reddish MU69. With the New Horizons team still expecting more detailed images of MU69, New Horizons will travel further into space.
Maybe scientists will discover another, weak, distant object and send new horizons in this way. The craft itself is 13 years old, but does not hold it back
"The spacecraft is in good health," Stern said.