A NASA spacecraft captured images of Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object more than 4 billion miles from Earth. The New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched in January 2006, flew past an oddly-shaped asteroid at travelling at a speed of more than 36,000mph. The new images of Ultima Thule are resolved at just 110 feet per pixel, the highest resolution pictures of the strange body New Horizons has received.
The frozen space rock known as 2014 MU69 is up to 4.1 billion miles from Earth.
John Spencer, a New Horizons deputy project scientist told Space.com: “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits or something entirely different is being debated in our science team.”
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Space.com: “Getting these images required us to know precisely where both tiny Ultima and New Horizons were as they passed one another at over 32,000mph in the dim light of the Kuiper Belt, a billion miles beyond Pluto, noted Spencer.
“This was a much tougher observation than anything we had attempted in our 2015 Pluto flyby.”
The Southwest Research Institute said: “The science, operations and navigation teams nailed it, and the result is a field day for our science team!
“Some of the details we now see on Ultima Thule’s surface are unlike any object ever explored before.”
The 2014 MU69 is the most distant object humanity’s ever had such a close-up look at, according to Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The asteroid is almost 20 miles long and is thought to be unchanged since the Solar System’s early days.
The first batch revealed the asteroid to appear as a lumpy, misshapen space peanut composed of two touching lobes called a contact binary.
More pictures have shown the rock to appear more like a pancake than a lump.
Pictures revealed strange light freckles and dark dents on the asteroid that scientists are trying to understand.
John Spencer said: “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team.”