NASA's New Horizons has found water on the surface of 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule, the farthest world ever explored.
The mission team has recently published an analysis of the data from the spacecraft's New Year's flyby of the object found within the Kuiper Belt.
"We're looking into the well-preserved remnants of the ancient past," stated Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, in a press release. "There is no doubt that the discoveries made about Ultima Thule are going to advance theories of Solar System formation."
They published their findings in the journal Science on May 17.
Secrets From Ultima Thule
The first set of data analyzed from New Horizon focused on the composition, geology, and development of the object.
Scientists reported that the spacecraft detected water ice, methanol, and organic molecules on the surface of Ultima Thule. The team noted that the mixture is very different from the icy objects that orbit beyond Neptune.
It is very red — redder than Pluto, which the spacecraft explored in 2015. Its red hue is a result of the modification of the organic materials on its surface, the team explained.
The paper also discusses the features of the distant object. New Horizons, in its flyby, observed bright spots and patches, hills and troughs, and craters and pits.
The largest depression on the surface of Ultima Thule is a crater that the team nicknamed "Maryland." It is estimated to be about 5 miles wide. According to the scientists, it must have been formed from an impact.
The smaller depressions, meanwhile, could have been caused by materials falling into the object's underground spaces or exotic ice going from solid to gas (a process called sublimation).
Formation Of Ultima Thule
Ultima Thule is about 4 billion miles away from Earth. It is 22 miles long with a flat lobe (Ultima) attached to a rounder lobe (Thule).
The New Horizons mission team explained that the two lobes were probably two separate objects that orbited each other — just like most of the binary worlds along the Kuiper Belt. Eventually, something forced them together into a "gentle" merger.
However, for this to occur, Ultima and Thule's orbital momentum should have dissipated. Scientists cannot say for now whether the two worlds ejected other lobes that form with them or if aerodynamic forces from gas in the ancient solar nebula caused their orbit to shrink.
The alignment of the two lobes also suggested that they were tidally locked before the merger.
Ultima Thule is an area of interest for scientists. The object is believed to be an ancient relic back from the era of planet formation billions of years ago.
The mission team is expected to receive data from the flyby until the summer of 2020. New Horizons, meanwhile, will continue to explore objects in the Kuiper Belt.