LAUREL, Md. — The New Horizons spacecraft’s picture of an icy object 4 billion miles from Earth became a lot clearer today, and took on a surprisingly familiar shape.
“It’s a snowman,” mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, said during a news briefing here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
The two-balled shape reminded others of BB-8, the plucky droid from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It even has a BB-8ish orangish-reddish color theme going on.
Today’s imagery, derived from data sent back to Earth on the previous day, literally casts a whole new light on the 19-mile-long object — which is known by its official designation, 2014 MU69, or by the nickname given by the New Horizons team, Ultima Thule (“Ul-ti-ma Too-lay”).
The views were captured by the piano-sized probe’s high-resolution camera from a distance of roughly 18,000 miles, a half-hour before the time of close approach on New Year’s Day. Two black-and-white pictures were released, with a resolution as fine as 140 meters (460 feet) per pixel.