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The horizon peeks at the mysterious Ultima Thule



About a billion miles farther away from Pluto is Ultima Thule, a nut-shaped object in the outer solar system which is the farthest place humans have ever visited.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft passes it on New Year's Eve, flying within 3,540 kilometers of the spacecraft colored surface.

The captured data now gives scientists a rare glimpse into the early days of the solar system.

Ultima Thule has spent most of 4.5 billion years frozen in the Kuiper Belt, a donut-shaped region outside Neptune that contains remains from the early solar system.

Its surface is almost heated by the sun, which is about 6.43 billion kilometers away, according to an initial analysis of New Horizons data published in the Friday issue of the journal Science.

"We have never seen anything so primordial, so unchanged since the beginning of the formation," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission.

Ultima Thule is what is called a contact binary object, which consists of two lobes that form separately through the accumulation of small particles of gas and dust. Only then did they join together, scientists believed.

The new report is based on only 10 percent of all data collected by New Horizons during flight. Complete downloads will not be complete until mid-2020.

There are seven things learned about Ultima Thule so far:

This is basically undisturbed for more than four billion years

That's about 43 times farther than the sun than we do and receives 900 times less sunlight.

During its 293 year orbit around the sun, some areas in Thule Ultima did not receive sunlight for decades.

The larger lobes – the smaller Ultima and the smaller Thule – come together in very soft collisions. The niche is light because there are a number of things that can crash and when that happens, it happens slowly.

Don't have a moon or ring.

It is very dark and reflects no more than 12 percent of the light that hits the surface but has bright spots.

There is a little water on the surface.


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