Published: Mon, February 11, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

New Horizons Images Show Ultima Thule May Actually Be More 'Pancake'-Shaped

New Horizons Images Show Ultima Thule May Actually Be More 'Pancake'-Shaped

The larger lobe, nicknamed "Ultima", more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed "Thule", is shaped like a dented walnut, according to the mission team.

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 team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent.

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by the twin space rocks known collectively as Ultima Thule earlier this year, the images it sent back seemed to show a "space snowman" in all its glory.

Project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, home to New Horizons flight control center, said the finding should spark new theories on how such primitive objects formed early in the solar system.

"We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view", Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement.

New Horizons may have moved on from Ultima Thule, but it still has plenty of images stored in its robotic brain. By combining the approach images that had already been taken and looking at stars obscured by the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as New Horizons hurtled past, scientists have been able to trace an outline of 2014 MU69. We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun'. But as more data were analyzed, including several highly evocative crescent images taken almost 10 minutes after closest approach, a "new view" of the object's shape emerged.

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of wonderful photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69. As it's situated in the Kuiper Belt about 4.1 billion miles from Earth, there's much about MU69 that scientists are still learning.

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Scientists estimate Ultima Thule is about 19 miles long; its dual sections measuring 12 miles across ("Ultima") and nine miles across ("Thule").

'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'.

New Horizons is already 32 million miles (52 million kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule.

The images that shocked New Horizons' scientists will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week.

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

Thanks to the close observations, we now know the small, oddly shaped world is 'two objects conjoined, ' Stern says.

NASA has just gotten another view of Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited, and it's surprisingly unlike what they'd previously expected it would appear - and like nothing they've seen before.

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