The first high-resolution images of a 21-mile tall snowman-shaped object that lies one billion miles beyond Pluto have been released by Nasa.
In addition to providing a clearer image of the object, the new data sent back to Earth from New Horizons has revealed significant information pointing to its origins and appearance.
About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of boring brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.
NASA shared a graphic showing how an object like Ultima Thule forms: "as a rotating cloud of small, icy bodies started to combine".
"This is what we need to move the models of planetary formation forward", said Alan Stern. Stern said the New Horizons team would start writing scientific papers next week, based on the data already in hand, and nearly certainly propose another mission extension to NASA by 2020. The massive area of swirling objects at the edge of the solar system also contains Pluto.
"I think we should think of New Horizons as a time machine, a way-back machine set to time zero, that's brought us back to the very beginning of solar system history to the place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".More news: Apple to start assembling top-end iPhones in India
Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is about 20 miles long by 10 miles wide. Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. We believe that Ultima Thule, which represents pristine, unchanged icy material from the early days of the solar system, formed when small, icy bodies came together, accreting into larger ones.
Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.
After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.
Queen guitarist Brian May has launched New Horizons, his first solo single since 1998's Why Don't We Try Again. "We may discover that it doesn't have many craters and we may very well find that most of the surface texture is dominated by the slow accretion processes and not the high-energy impacts that cause craters".
This is the first color image of 2014 MU69, taken from 137,000 km away, at 4:08 UTC on January 1, 2019.
Mr Stern added: "It's going to just get better and better".
Instead, the first images beamed down from the spacecraft show it resembles a snowman - or even the BB-8 droid robot from the "Star Wars" film series. The bowling pin image is "so 2018", joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute. But it's a bummer that the New Horizons team is doubling down on the name, despite already knowing about its nefarious second meaning.