Earthlings have received another fantastic shot of the “space snowman.”
This image, taken during New Horizon’s historic Jan. 1 flyby of space rock Ultima Thule, is “the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system,” the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said in a statement.
Ultima Thule consists of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 20 miles across. The larger one is “Ultima” while the smaller one is “Thule.”
When the photo is turned on its side, the object resembles a snowman. Though the New Horizons spacecraft flew by the rock on Jan. 1, images taken that day continue to be received and processed.
“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.
Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when small, icy pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other and stuck together.
Gravity holds the two rocks together, NASA said.
Its remarkable appearance, unlike anything that’s been seen before, illuminates the processes that built our solar system four and a half billion years ago.
The new image clearly shows craters and pits on the rock, which is roughly 1 billion miles away from Pluto – making it the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.
With the inelegant official name of “2014 MU69,” Ultima Thule was first discovered in 2014 by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA said the nickname Ultima Thule means “beyond the borders of the known world.”
“Over the next month there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule,” Stern said.
New Horizons continues to speed away from the sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 31,500 miles per hour.