On Jan. 1, 2019, while the confetti was still fresh on the streets of Times Square, a space probe billions of miles from Earth made a historic flyby of an object dating back to the earliest days of our solar system.
Officially known as 2014 MU69, but nicknamed "Ultima Thule" by NASA, this celestial time capsule was visited by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft at about 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year's Day. Unlike Pluto — which New Horizons also flew by, completely upending our knowledge of the dwarf planet in 2015 — Ultima Thule is tiny, only 19 miles (31 kilometers) in diameter, compared with Pluto's diameter of more than 1,477 miles (2,377 km).
Despite its small size, Ultima Thule is no ordinary space rock. A resident of the Kuiper Belt, a location beyond Neptune containing early remnants from our solar system's formation, it has largely remained untouched for billions of years.
"We don't know what a primordial, ancient, perfectly preserved object like Ultima is, because no one's ever been to something like this," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Geek Wire. "It's terra incognita. It is pure exploration. We'll just see what it's all about — if it's got rings, if it's got a swarm of satellites."
More complex than expected
The New Horizons team released its initial results from the flyby May 17 in the journal Science. Analyzing just the first set of data, the team "quickly discovered an object far more complex than expected," according to a news release from NASA.
Ultimate Thule is a "contact binary," or a pair of small celestial objects that have gravitated toward one another until they touch, creating a two-lobed structure sort of like a peanut. The two lobes have very different shapes, NASA notes, with one large, oddly flat lobe ("Ultima") linked to a smaller, slightly rounder lobe ("Thule") at a juncture nicknamed "the neck." These two lobes once orbited each other, until some unknown process united them in a "gentle" merger.
Researchers are also studying surface features on Ultima Thule, including a variety of bright spots, hills, troughs, craters and pits. The largest depression is a crater measuring 5 miles (8 km) wide, likely formed by an impact, although some of the smaller pits may have formed in other ways. Ultima Thule is also "very red," NASA adds, probably due to modification of organic materials on its surface. The flyby revealed evidence of methanol, water ice and organic molecules on the surface, which differs from what's been found on most icy objects explored by spacecraft, according to NASA.
"We're looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past," Stern said in a statement. "There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of solar system formation."
A rendezvous far from home
When New Horizons made its rendezvous with Ultima Thule, it was more than 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth and traveling faster than 32,000 miles per hour (51,500 kph). In fact, when it launched in 2006, the space probe set a record for the fastest spacecraft –– with an Earth and Sun escape trajectory of 36,373 mph (58,537 kph). This excessive speed is one reason the spacecraft will only briefly analyze the object it has been chasing these last several years.
"Are there debris in the way? Will the spacecraft make it? I mean, you know, you can't get any better than that," Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, said of the building drama. "And, we'll get spectacular images on top of that. What's not to like?"
On Dec. 28, 2018, New Horizons approached within 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of Ultima Thule and recorded images along the way. Within just 10 hours, the data were sent to John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. While the spacecraft has continued to collect data and images in the ensuing months, NASA quickly released the first composite of two images, which showed Ultima Thule is shaped roughly like a bowling pin and approximately 20 miles by 10 miles (32 km by 16 km).
"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history — 4 billion miles from the Sun," Stern said. "The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out the data will just get better and better!"
A mystery frozen in time
While Ultima Thule's appearance and environment have been shrouded in mystery, scientists did know one thing going in: It's cold. Really cold, with average temperatures maybe only 40 to 50 degrees above absolute zero (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273.15 Celsius). As such, mission planners see Thule as a frozen time capsule from the solar system's earliest days.
"It's a big deal because we're going 4 billion years into the past," Stern said. "Nothing that we've ever explored in the entire history of space exploration has been kept in this kind of deep freeze the way Ultima has."
The mission team hopes to learn a lot about this Kuiper Belt enigma: Why do objects in the Kuiper Belt tend to exhibit a dark red color? Does Ultima have any active geology occurring? Dust rings? Maybe even its own moon? Is it possibly a dormant comet? We may have to wait for answers to many of the questions about Ultima Thule, however, since data from the flyby will continue to stream in until late summer 2020.
A mission steeped in patience
Before New Horizons intercepted Ultima Thule on Jan. 1, the spacecraft passed considerably closer than its flyby of Pluto in 2015. Whereas that historic encounter occurred at 7,750 miles (12,472 km) from the surface, this one took place from a distance of only 2,200 miles (3,540 km). This will allow the various cameras on New Horizons to capture superb details of Thule's surface, with some geologic mapping images as fine as 110 feet (34 meters) per pixel.
According to Stern, a total of 50 gigabits of information will be captured by New Horizons during its flyby. Because of its distance from Earth, data transmission rates average about 1,000 bits per second and can take upwards of six hours to reach home.
"This limitation, and the fact that we share NASA’s Deep Space Network of tracking and communication antennas with over a dozen other NASA missions, means that it will take 20 months or more, until late in 2020, to send all of the data about Ultima and its environment back to Earth," Stern wrote on Sky and Telescope.
To infinity and beyond
After blazing by Ultima Thule, New Horizons will spend the next two years transmitting its findings on the Kuiper Belt object. While its extended mission is expected to formally end on April 30, 2021, the mission team is hinting that there may yet be another object out there worth visiting.
Looking beyond the early 2020s, NASA engineers estimate New Horizon's radioisotope thermoelectric generator will keep the spacecraft's instruments functioning until at least 2026. During this time, as it passes through the outer solar system, the probe likely will send back valuable data on the heliosphere –– the bubble-like region of space composed of solar wind particles emanating from the sun. As NASA announced in October, the spacecraft already detected the presence of a glowing "hydrogen wall" at the edge of the solar system.
"I think New Horizons has a bright future, continuing to do planetary science and other applications," Stern said at a conference in 2017. "There's fuel and power onboard the spacecraft to operate it for another 20 years. That's not going to be a concern even for a third or fourth extended mission."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in December 2018.