If you’re anything like me, you were probably a little disappointed when you saw the first pictures of Kuiper belt object MU69. Sure, we could make out a snowman-like shape, but it also looked like something a shot with a smartphone from a moving car.
OK, that isn’t far off, as the New Horizons spacecraft snapped its photos from thousands of kilometres away while speeding by at 50,700km/h. But we couldn’t get images immediately, since it takes six hours for a signal to travel the roughly 6.4 billion km from the craft to Earth — and there’s a lot of data to transmit.
But scientists behind the mission have now unveiled the newest and clearest photos of the object.
New Horizons launched in 2006 with Pluto as its first target. After returning jaw-dropping photos and a tonne of data on the most famous Kuiper belt object, the team set its sights on the next rock the probe would encounter, the 31.7km object formally called (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. That flyby occurred to much fanfare this past New Years Day.
The newest photo comes from 4:26PM AEDT on January 1, seven minutes before New Horizon’s closest approach. It shows the object’s two-lobed structure, a deep depression on the smaller lobe, dark and light features, and a bright white colour where the two lobes join.
It’s unclear whether the depression is an impact crater or from some other geologic process. Scientists are also not sure what’s causing the colour difference.
New Horizons is continuing to send back data on MU69, which will hopefully reveal more about its composition and formation — and how it got its odd, snowman-like shape. In the mean time, you can still look at the raw files here.