The icy rock that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past on New Year’s Day is coming into focus.
On Thursday, the mission team released the sharpest picture of the 21-mile-long body known officially as 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule. Consisting of two roundish lobes that are fused together, it is believed to be an almost pristine leftover from the earliest days of the solar system, more than 4.5 billion years ago.
The spacecraft took the picture when it was 4,200 miles from Ultima Thule, just seven minutes before its closest approach. From this angle, the shadows are more apparent, revealing a deep depression on the smaller lobe. This could be a crater, a pit that collapsed or an area that was blown out when gases escaped from the interior long ago.
Scientists also can better resolve light and dark patterns on the surface, including a particularly bright collar where the two lobes connect.
Even sharper pictures could be sent back to Earth in the coming weeks as the spacecraft travels further into the distant solar system. New Horizons will continue to stream data from the flyby until late 2020.