The rendezvous between the New Horizons probe and the object known as Ultima Thule was a historic moment, but after the breathtaking images sent back by Pluto's vehicle, you could be forgiven for a little disappointed how indistinct the early pictures were. These concerns should be partially mitigated by the recent image of the probe, which represents the rocky world in much greater detail.
It's still not an exact poster quality, but remember, this is being radiated piece by piece from four billion kilometers away. And it's not just the best, but a huge series of images taken during the brief flyby on January 1st. Not only that, but there are several imagers and instruments whose information needs to be collected and adapted for human viewing. 1
The lighting is random, and helps to show the topography of Ultima Thule or 2014 MU69, as it was previously known. To give you a degree of scaling, the large concavity in what you may call the snowman head is about four miles. The team writes in a blog post:
It is not clear whether these pits are impact craters or features that result from other processes, such as "collapse pits" or the ancient venting of volatile materials.
Both lobes also show many fascinating light and dark patterns of unknown origin that can provide clues as to how this body was assembled 4.5 billion years ago during the formation of the solar system. One of the most striking of these is the bright "collar" that separates the two lobes.
The chief investigator of the New Horizons mission, Alan Stern, with whom I talked about the flyby and other issues a few months before New Year's Eve, says in the same post, which we can look forward to even more:
"This new Image gradually shows differences in the geological character of the two rags of Ultima Thule and also introduces new secrets. Next month, there will be better color images and better resolution images we hope will solve the many mysteries of Ultima Thule. "