First pictures of Ultima Thule arrive from NASA's New Horizon spacecraft

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- From pixels yesterday, to what looks like an oblong blob, today. Patience, please. We have never explored an object four billion miles away.

"Even though it is a pixelated blob, it's a better pixelated blob," said Hal Weaver, the project scientist in charge of New Horizons.

Monday night, his team's relatively tiny spacecraft hurtled past Ultima Thule, a preserved remnant from the beginning of our solar system, in the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft arrived within a few hundred yards of its target, on time within splits of seconds.

And, at 32,000 miles an hour.

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This mission is an unexpected encore from the same spacecraft that showed us Pluto in 2015.

Those photos left us spellbound. When that mission concluded, the spacecraft had enough fuel to change direction and move toward a world we didn't know existed when it launched in 2006. These new photos are likely to be equally surprising.

We already know Ultima Thule is elongated, and about 20 miles long. But, is it one object? Or two in close orbit? "If two objects, it would be an unprecedented situation in terms of how close they are to one another," said Principle Investigator Alan Stern. "It will be spectacular to see."

They're betting one. And, based on that blurry blob, already calculating how Ultima Thule rotates through space. The science team has already figured out why Ultima Thule never appeared to change brightness while most other objects do. Luck had something to do with it.

"That is because the pole is pointing directly toward the spacecraft," said Weaver. "Like a propeller spinning around, and that explains everything, basically."
So now we wait for more data to fill in the blanks. By Wednesday, we'll see the surface of that blob, and a completely different world compared with what we are seeing now.

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"This mission has always been about delayed gratification," said Stern. "It took years to sell the mission, then five years to build it, and nine years just to get to the first target (Pluto)."

The data download will take until February, with most important items arriving first, and the bonus, high-definition material coming in later.

That's according to plan. "Even though the spacecraft has performed perfectly for 15 years, there is always the chance that something could go amiss," said Stern. "So we want to start with high priority objectives."

As for the spacecraft? It still has fuel and enough power to function effectively for 20 years. With Ultima Thule in the rearview mirror, don't rule out another target.

The Kuiper Belt is a big place.
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