"Think of New Horizons as a time machine that has brought us back to the very beginning of the solar system, to a place where we can observe the most primordial building blocks of the planets".
That data will be sent back over the next year and a half, because the mobile reception isn't exactly great on the further reaches of our solar system.
Color may seem trivial, but for the New Horizons team, it's critical information that will help the researchers determine what ices and minerals decorate the object's surface, says Silvia Protopapa, a co-investigator of the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission. NASA's New Horizons mission flew by the object early on January 1, and the maneuver's science data will reach Earth over the course of almost two months. This world lies in a far-off group of objects, called the Kuiper Belt, that ring the solar system.
The snowman-shaped Ultima Thule has inspired a lot of jokes and memes.
Images were taken by onboard instruments as the spacecraft zoomed past the world some 2,200 miles from its surface on New Year's Day, just past midnight.
Stern expressed surprise, and elation, that after picking the mission target "more or less" out of the hat, "that we were able to get as big a victor as this, that is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science".
While some have compared Ultima Thule to a snowman, others to a peanut.
The longevity of New Horizon's plutonium battery may even allow it to record its exit from the Solar System.
Stern noted that the team has received less than 1 percent of all the data stored aboard New Horizons. The larger sphere, which the team has now dubbed "Ultima", is 12 miles (19 km) wide, while the smaller one, "Thule", measures 9 miles (14.5 km) across.
The first color images, taken at lower resolution, show that Ultima Thule has a red color.
The New Horizons probe, about the size of a piano, has been flying through space for more than a dozen years and provided the first-ever close-up of Pluto in 2015. Included in this will be a series of much higher-resolution images that will provide an even greater look at Ultima Thule, now the farthest object from Earth to ever be photographed by a spacecraft.
Among the images the scientists are hoping to receive are "higher resolution views" and pictures taken when the sun is at a better angle for viewing Ultima Thule. "What you're seeing is the first contact binary ever explored by a spacecraft", Stern said today at a press conference here at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The lobes, he said, were really only "resting on each other".
"The term "Ultima Thule" was many centuries old ... and is a wonderful name for exploration".