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The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles on Jan. 1, 2019. Left and right-most images use near infrared, red and blue channels. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The early data from the historic New Year's flyby of a space object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," located about 4 billion miles from Earth, reveals that it's comprised of two joined spheres that are reddish in color.

Why it matters: This is the first so-called "contact binary" ever studied closely by a spacecraft, according to Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission. Ultima Thule used to be two separate, icy objects that are now fused together, according to NASA. It is located in a region of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt and thought to be a time capsule dating back to the formation of the solar system itself about 4.6 billion years ago.

The big picture: Ultima Thule, formally known as 2014 MU69, is the most primitive object ever studied closely by a spacecraft, mission scientists said. It's thought to be comprised of the building blocks of early planets, measuring about 19 miles from end-to-end. Researchers hope Ultima Thule will provide new data about how planets — perhaps including Earth — might form.

  • The flyby, which occurred at 12:33 a.m. ET on Tuesday, required scientists to stretch the capabilities of the New Horizons spacecraft to their limit.
  • As New Horizons, which also visited Pluto in 2015, sped past Ultima Thule, the spacecraft traveled at about 32,000 mph, gathering data from the seven instruments on board.

What's next: Researchers say they still only know a limited amount about Ultima Thule, whose nickname means "beyond the known world."

  • Less than 1% of the data gathered during the flyby has been received and processed back on Earth, largely due to the lag time involved with broadcasting signals across such a long distance. Researchers will continue to release new imagery and data over the coming months.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Senate confirms retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

The Senate voted 93-2 on Friday to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were the sole "no" votes.

Why it matters: Austin is the first Black American to lead the Pentagon and President Biden's second Cabinet nominee to be confirmed.

House will transmit article of impeachment to Senate on Monday, Schumer says

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that the House will deliver the article of impeachment against former President Trump for "incitement of insurrection" on Monday.

Why it matters: The Senate is required to begin the impeachment trial at 1pm the day after the article is transmitted.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Private equity bets on delayed tax reform in Biden administration

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

In normal times, private equity would be nervous about Democratic Party control of both the White House and Congress. But in pandemic-consumed 2021, the industry seems sanguine.

Driving the news: Industry executives and lobbyists paid very close attention to Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen's confirmation hearings this week, and came away convinced that tax reform isn't on the near-term agenda.