The photographs mean the mysterious Kuiper Belt space object 2014 MU69, dubbed Ultima Thule, now exists as more than a generic-looking blob. The latest images of Ultima Thule boast resolutions of 110 feet per pixel, the best pictures yet of the strange body New Horizons has encountered. NASA’s spacecraft captured the high definition photographs of Ultima Thule, a distant asteroid aptly meaning “beyond the known world”, from a mere 4,109 miles distance.
NASA scientists already knew some details about Ultima Thule before now, such as its distinct pancake shape.
But these recently-released high-quality photographs have revealed previously invisible details.
These include circular patches of terrain, deep pockmarks and other previously elusive details.
NASA’s New Horizons got closer to MU69 than it did its main target, Pluto, thanks to “unprecedented precision” in calculations across multiple countries.
There was a real chance New Horizons’ camera could even miss Ultima Thule entirely, according to NASA mission team Principal Investigator Dr Alan Stern.
Dr Stern said: “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.
“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.”
Ultima Thule is the most distant object humanity’s ever had such a close-up look at, according to Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Ultima Thule is 20 miles long and has remained unchanged since the early days of our solar system.
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, a NASA New Horizons deputy project scientist, said: “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team.”