On December 31st, 2018, NASA and the New Horizon's team (plus millions of people watching the live stream at home) rang in the New Year by watching theNew Horizons mission make the first rendezvous in history with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft.
New Horizons encountered Ultima 6.5 billion km from Earth.
Additionally, the New Horizons team can now definitely say that-just as the images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope several years ago tentatively predicted-Ultima Thule's hue is a toasty brownish-red.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern called the mission "a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in spaceflight".
The US space agency's craft, the New Horizons, has been busy investigating it which is no small feat as it's pretty dark that far away from the sun. NASA said the joining of the two objects illuminates the processes that built the planets billions of years ago.
Around 10 hours after reaching the icy world of Ultima Thule, in the early part of New Year's Day, the New Horizons vessel got in touch with scientists back home.
The body likely formed as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system. Ultima Thule is an object in the icy Kuiper belt.
Also of interest is the apparent lack of craters, hinting at a surface built through accretion rather than the violent impacts seen in the inner solar system.
Now, however, we have a much clearer image of what Ultima Thule actually looks like, thanks to new scientific data sent from New Horizons. Scientists think that Ultima was formed by two separate entities coming together in a gentle kiss.
Prior to today, images of Ultima Thule were only a handful of pixels across, leaving the object's true physique ambiguous.
The shape indicates that a rotating cloud of innumerable tiny objects must have coalesced into two balls that slowly spiraled closer and closer together until they gently touched, forming the object out beyond Pluto that scientists have nicknamed "Ultima Thule", which means "beyond the known world".
The New Horizons team combined a low-resolution color image of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, with sharper black-and-white imagery to produce the composite view at right.
The narrow "neck" between the two lobes appears to be relatively bright, perhaps suggesting that particular materials might have settled there. "I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it".
It also comes with a visual that tells the story of the Ultima Thule project.
"So stay tuned", Jeff Moore, the New Horizons geology team lead, said on Wednesday.