NASA New Horizons Space Probe, flyby of Ultima Thule

Find out how Nasa's spacecraft is powered and how it is able to send images back to Earth from four billion miles away

Find out how Nasa's spacecraft is powered and how it is able to send images back to Earth from four billion miles away

It's about as dark as potting soil.

The picture's were captured by the space agency's New Horizons probe, which has broken the record for most distant exploration of a solar object.

Higher-resolution pictures and additional scientific data will keep flowing over the "next weeks and months", the New Horizons team said.

It is a contact binary: two small ball-shaped rocks touching one another as they spin like a propeller in space.

One of the lobes is about three times the size of the other one.

The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two.

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"This mission has always been about delayed gratification", Stern said on Tuesday.

The new images came down to Earth on Tuesday evening, so scientists have not had much time to analyze them. "Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy".

Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Team, Team Lead, NASA Ames Research Center, spoke a bit about the formation of Ultima Thule. The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other".

Several comets that have flown into the inner solar system have had a bilobed shape, but it was unclear whether they were formed that way or took that shape as ices on their surface sublimated away in the warmth of the sun.

Our first look at Ultima Thule was little more than a smudge. "These are the only remaining building blocks of the planets, scattered in the backyard of the solar system". Scientists estimated Wednesday's image was taken at 27,000 km. At right, the color was draped over the black and white image.

The main priorities for the research is mapping Ultima Thule's surface, as well as looking for any potential moons and rings. At times, these two extremes can be seen right next to each other.

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At 10:28 am EST today, New Horizons made its pre-programmed "phone home", letting the mission team back on Earth know that the craft completed the flyby unharmed. "That's definitely what I'm most excited about today". If Ultima Thule is indeed the product of a rocky rendezvous, that's big news: It provides concrete evidence of early interactions between small, icy bodies on their way to bigger things.

"When I first saw the images, I think I probably said "wow" a million times", says Anne Verbiscer, New Horizons' assistant project scientist.

"Everything we are telling you is just the tip of the iceberg", he said. Less than 1% of the data has returned so far. A similar process is likely happening on Ultima Thule.

The first color image (left) of Ultima Thule, snapped by New Horizons' Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC).

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