I’ve been waiting for this ever since Pluto’s time in the spotlight, when they announced this target.
The new data from Nasa’s spacecraft also shows just how dark the object is. Its brightest areas reflect just 13% of the light falling on them; the darkest, just 6%. That’s similar to potting soil, said Cathy Olkin, the mission’s deputy project scientist.
It has a tinge of colour, however. “We had a rough colour from Hubble but now we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red,” added colleague Carly Howett.
“Our current theory as to why Ultima Thule is red is the irradiation of exotic ices.” Essentially, its surface has been “burnt” over the eons by the high-energy cosmic rays and X-rays that flood space.
And now they just need to find a new target:
What does New Horizons do next?
First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask Nasa to fund a further extension to the mission.
The hope is that the course of the spacecraft can be altered slightly to visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.
New Horizons should have just enough fuel reserves to be able to do this. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s.