Scientists from NASA's New Horizons mission on Wednesday released the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored - the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule. "Meet Ultima Thule!" said lead investigator Alan Stern, doing little to hide his joy as he revealed a new sharper image of the cosmic body, taken at a distance as close as 17,000 miles (about 27,000 kilometers) with a resolution of 140 meters per pixel. At around 4.1 billion miles from Earth, it takes roughly six hours for radio signals from the probe to reach Earth.
Ultima Thule is also actually made up of two space objects.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for "making history".
"Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space".
When asked about the Nazis' use of the term, Showalter confirmed that he was aware of the usage and said that the New Horizons team and NASA, including its legal department, decided that the original meaning was more prominent and outweighed the less savory connotations.
If the craft holds up, and the support mission back on Earth gets funding for a "hyperextended mission", New Horizons could be sampling the interstellar medium by the time today's newborns are finishing high school.
Ultima Thule was formed by the joining of objects orbiting around each other. Tholins are also behind the reddish color in a crater on the surface of Pluto's biggest moon, Charon, but scientists say the process behind its deposition on Ultima is likely to be different. Now, May has combined both of his loves on "New Horizons", his first solo song in more than two decades.
Ultima Thule was once two separate space rocks that joined together, known as a contact binary.
After it coasted through, NASA selected Ultima Thule as the next observational target and set a course. New images from varying perspectives - captured as the probe moved passed the object - will bring out shadows on the object surfaces, revealing its contours more clearly.
Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions. Ultima Thule is over 40 times farther from the Sun than Earth; this deep in outer space, temperatures clock in around -400 degrees Fahrenheit-and these frigid, Sun-starved conditions can make for fairly pristine preservation. It does show the tight, squeezed area of a belt, the small region where the two lobes are in contact.
This is just the beginning of what we will learn about this otherworldly object. The New Horizons team has named the individual lobes, calling the smaller one Thule and the larger one Ultima.