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Spacecraft Beams Back Pictures Of Icy World Four Billion Miles Away

One of the first images of MU 69, or Ultima Thule, from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Photo: John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / NASA

A spacecraft traveling about four billion miles from Earth is sending back data and photos of a distant rock at the edge of our solar system. It’s the most distant observation of another world and scientists are excited about its findings.

Scientists are getting the first clear images of a snowman-shaped space rock nicknamed Ultima Thule.
On New Year’s Day, the New Horizons space craft zoomed past the icy world that’s about the size of the city of Orlando around four billion miles away.

Now, the spacecraft is transmitting its data back to Earth. Terry Oswalt, Professor of Physics & Chair at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, said its observations will help planetary scientists understand how the solar system formed.

“When you build a house, there’s a lot of building debris left over scattered around the yard of the lot where the house was built. That’s what Ultima Thule is – part of that left over building debris from the solar system.”

Scientist say new data coming in could uncover what the surface of the icy rock looks like, what it’s made out of and how it formed.

“Nature has freeze dried the outer part of the solar system,” said Oswalt. “It’s a relic of the original formation of the solar system. That’s where you want to go if you want to uncover the most useful scientific clues for how we came to be in this solar system.”

The spacecraft will continue to beam back data from the flyby over the next 20 months. New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral back in 2006 on a primary mission to explore Pluto.

Ultima Thule is about 1 billion miles from Pluto. Mission managers say the craft is in good health and could explore even more worlds.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »