"New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation", said Stern. With any luck, upcoming projects like the James Webb Space Telescope will further expand our understanding of the universe.
The probe made its much-anticipated flyby of the mysterious Solar System object called Ultima Thule early on January 1st, and NASA declared the mission a success after receiving word that the spacecraft gathered a wealth of science data. NASA dubbed the larger lobe Ultima, and the other, which is about three times smaller, Thule.
Scientists are keen to study Ultima Thule as it lives in a region that has been relatively untouched since the formation of the solar system, which in turn helps them better understand planetary formation. The Kuiper belt object is now 4 billion miles from the sun.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the target of the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, is another example of this kind of object, however that is likely where the resemblance between MU69 and Comet 67P ends. This image was taken by the craft's Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which combines light from the infrared, red and blue channels.
Ultima Thule, a name that was nominated by 40 people, won the public poll.
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Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.
"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", he added.
These two rocks were then pulled together by the extremely weak gravitational forces of each other, nudging together at such slow speeds that initial observations from New Horizons do not reveal any stress fractures or damage from the "collision". The new images and data confirmed the icy space rock's classification as a contact binary. Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other.
The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, had "28,000 pixels on the target ... which way beats six pixels", Stern joked referring to the fuzzy, bowling-pin picture that was released the day before.
Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule.
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On Wednesday, NASA scientists shared newly downloaded data revealing the distant object at greater resolutions.
Scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent "divots" and suggestions of hills and ridges.
The new image also resolved the debate about the nature of Ultima Thule.
The New Horizons team has also been able to determine a rough calculation for 2014 MU69's rotation period at 15 hours +/- 1 hour, meaning that more than half of the object was in daylight as New Horizons passed and was therefore observed. The slow data-rates from the Kuiper belt mean it will be fully 20 months before all the information is pulled off the spacecraft.
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