The shape of MU69, as he and others explained, came from two larger objects that slowly spiraled in closer over time, finally touching each other at a speed of perhaps 1 mile (1.6 km) per hour. Are such shapes common in the Kuiper Belt?
Luckily for science, New Horizons itself may provide those answers. The spacecraft is remarkably healthy given that it’s been flying in space for 13 years, Stern noted. It probably has more than a decade of life remaining. In the summer of 2020, the New Horizons team has a scheduled opportunity to offer NASA a new science mission for the spacecraft. That mission might be flying by yet another Kuiper Belt object, or observing several targets from a distance using a telescope.
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While the successful New Horizons flyby dominated planetary news in late 2018 and early 2019, that flyby was attached with some controversy. As is common with new objects, the New Horizons team picked a temporary name for MU69 until the International Astronomical Union (the official arbitrator of astronomy names) can make a final decision.
MU69’s moniker — “Ultima Thule,” a Latin phrase that refers to a distant place beyond known borders — has ancient origins, as well as some unfortunate Nazi connotations after it was co-opted to refer to a mythological Aryan homeland. Pointing out that the phrase dates back well over a millennium, Stern stood firm in the decision to use it for the mission.
“It’s a wonderful meme for exploration, and that's why we chose it,” he said at the press conference. “Obviously, just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”
More results from New Horizons are expected soon based on stereo images and data that will probably show the composition of MU69, hints of an atmosphere, and whether there are any craters on its surface.
The early images were taken with the sun right behind New Horizons’ metaphorical back, making it too difficult to see much elevation on the surface. More terrain may show up as New Horizons moves around to the side of MU69. Shadows there will throw the ancient dirt into relief and reveal any hills, gullies, or craters.