Published: Mon, February 11, 2019
Sci-tech | By April Francis

NASA’s New Horizons unveils unique shape of Ultima Thule

NASA’s New Horizons unveils unique shape of Ultima Thule

The larger lobe, as described by NASA, more closely resembles a giant pancake, while the smaller one is shaped like a dented walnut. The object's illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level - but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent.

The final photos that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft snapped of Ultima Thule during the probe's epic January 1 flyby reveal the distant object to be far flatter than scientists had thought, mission team members announced today (Feb. 8). Now New Horizons is bidding farewell to another long-distance neighbor, but not before throwing scientists new puzzles to munch on about the odd Ultima Thule.

At 4 billion miles from Earth, MU69 (also nicknamed Ultima Thule) is the farthest-away object a human spacecraft has ever visited.

NASA composed this new model by observing Ultima Thule over time, watching which background stars blinked out and which did not as the asteroid rotated. Stern added that the discovery of its true shape is "creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed". "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun", he said.

The latest images were taken almost 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point, which were the final views New Horizons captured of Ultima Thule, said a NASA release on Friday.

Ultima Thule first seemed to be an amalgam of two vaguely spherical objects, but the new image is telling us that appearances can be deceiving, especially at 4.1 billion miles away.

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of fantastic photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

Though it will take approximately 20 months for New Horizons to get all of its pictures, measurements and other scientific data back home to Earth, the newly released images are sure to "motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system", Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said. However, analysis of both the approach and departure images have changed this view because of the revealing of an outline, which was not seen before as it was not illuminated by the sun. By watching which ones "blinked out" as Ultima passed in front of them, the scientists were able to outline the object's odd shape. But that impression changed shortly before closest approach, which occurred just after midnight on New Year's Day and brought the probe within 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of the mysterious body.

The images that shocked New Horizons' scientists will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week. Yep, Ultima Thule is more of a space pancake than a snowman.

The latest pictures were taken when New Horizons was about 8,000km from the object.

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