(CN) – In January, a NASA spacecraft made contact with a “snowman” shaped object in a virtually unexplored, icy realm of space beyond the gas giants Uranus and Neptune. In the process, the spacecraft uncovered clues about the formation of the Milky Way.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set out from Earth in January 2006 to study the atmospheres and geological makeup of worlds at the edge of our solar system, an area where scientists believe they can unlock clues to our galaxy’s evolution.
Just a year into its mission, the spacecraft picked up a gravity boost during its glide past Jupiter and in 2017 became the first NASA probe to make contact with the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons.
High-resolution cameras aboard the spacecraft captured the first evidence of an ancient subsurface ocean on Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, and scenes of icy hills floating upon frozen nitrogen lakes.
After passing Pluto, New Horizons cruised into the Kuiper Belt, a vast field of small icy bodies more than four billion miles from Neptune’s orbit.
Researchers have long targeted the countless ancient ice-worlds inside the belt for exploration, describing the area as a relic of the Milky Way’s formation.
A new study published Thursday in the journal Science found that data transmitted from New Horizons’ first ever flyby of an icy object inside the Kuiper Belt may hold clues about the birth of our solar system.
The object, known as MU69, was selected as a destination for New Horizons after it was discovered by the Hubble Telescope in 2014.
Researchers classified the icy object – which NASA’s spacecraft glided past on Jan. 1 – as a Cold Classical Kuiper Belt Object, meaning it is uniformly red in color and has remained in good condition due to its stable orbit and distance from the Sun.
Scientists said in the 12-page study that MU69 is comprised of two combined spheres known as Ultima and Thule and has maintained its dual-lobed shape over time, even as heat from the sun has blasted it since its formation roughly 4.5 billion years ago.
This means it has been able to preserve information on the chemical and physical properties that existed during the formation of the Milky Way.
No moons, rings or dust clouds were found orbiting MU69 and there are no signs that it has an atmosphere, the study said.
But some rings and satellites have escaped objects larger than MU69 and now float among the giant planets in our solar system.
During the object’s 293-year orbit, it experiences long polar days and nights during which some regions on MU69 receive continuous sunlight, or none at all, for decades at a time.
The temperature on MU69 is set by the balance of heat absorbed by the sun and heat launched back into space.
During the object’s summer period, temperatures may reach minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit while lowering only slightly to minus 400 during winter.
At the object’s lowest temperatures, frozen ethane, methanol and hydrogen cyanide would not crystallize and would therefore be able survive over the age of the solar system.
Lead researcher Alan Stern said in a statement that the insights gained from the study are based on 10% of flyby data and that a full analysis is expected to be completed by next year.