The world is in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt.
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. The photos unveiled by the New Horizons team today were taken before closest approach, from distances of about 85,000 miles (137,000 km) and 18,000 miles (28,000 km). "New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation". That didn't make the accomplishment any less significant, though. Because Pluto is so far away, New Horizons had to get moving at a phenomenal speed to get there in a reasonable amount of time. It was the furthest world humankind has ever explored in space.
Planetary scientists have never before seen a close-up of an object like Ultima Thule.
"The bowling pin is gone".
Scientists will have to be patient though, as it will take around 20 months for the probe to send back all of the information it has gathered during the flyby of Ultima Thule.
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The fuzzy bowling pin from that first data stream has been replaced by the new snowman version.
Signals confirming the probe is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center at 10:29 a.m. EST (3:29 p.m. GMT). That means its two lobes are separate objects that have joined together.
Those larger specs then continued to clump together until objects greater than 1 kilometer in size formed and began attracting each other with their gravity... and so on to form the larger objects in our solar system today. Some of the data acquired by New Horizons might shed light on that.
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 imagery, dramatic though it may be, is just the tip of the Ultima Thule iceberg. It has a reddish color, most likely due to long-term exposure to radiation.
NASA now expects New Horizons' mission in the Kuiper Belt to run through 2021 at least.