Space

NASA’s New Horizons mission has sent back the first detailed images of the most distant object ever explored in the solar system, dubbed Ultima Thule, which lies four billion miles away.

The image: The object, which looks a little like a snowman, is what’s known as a “contact binary,” a body consisting of two connected spheres measuring 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. It’s located in the Kuiper Belt, an icy region of our solar system beyond the orbit of the major planets. The two spheres probably joined right at the start of the solar system’s formation, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender, according to NASA.

How it was taken: The picture above was taken on January 1, 2019, from a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers), using the spacecraft’s two cameras: the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. It’s so far away the picture took six hours to reach Earth. 

Time machine: There’s more to Ultima Thula than meets the eye, and the images are just the start. The next step for NASA will be to download and analyze the data captured, a process that could take years. NASA hopes it will help to illuminate how planets were created four and a half billion years ago, both in our solar system and beyond.