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

Ultima Thule

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule - with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments - had observers calling it a "snowman".

In early January, the $720 million New Horizons mission captured pictures of Ultima Thule.

The newest sequence of images suggests that instead of two spheres, MU69's sections (called "lobes") are somewhat flat. "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun", he added.

New Horizons still has much more data to send back to Earth, as its data connection over the 44.4 astronomical units (6.6 billion km) is pretty slow.

"Enlarge / The "old" view of Ultima Thule is on top".

After analyzing these new images, scientists say the larger lobe more closely resembles a large pancake, and the smaller lobe looks a bit like a walnut.

'We had an impression of Ultimate Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view, ' Stern said.

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NASA scientists shared the 3D animation of the space rock's shape below, which was created using images that New Horizons captured as it left MU69 behind.

When New Horizons beamed back its first images of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and most distant object ever explored by humans, scientists and the press excitedly noted that it appeared to be an ancient contact binary composed of two spherical shapes compressed at their point of mutual contact. The photos were taken almost 10 minutes after the probe passed its closest point to the rock. By watching which ones "blinked out" as Ultima passed in front of them, the scientists were able to outline the object's unusual shape.

Ultima Thule has shown this new side of itself because New Horizons took its final images from a different angle than the one used as it approached the object.

New Horizons has been rocketing away from Ultima Thule since New Year's Day, but the data rate on the spacecraft is so low, we're still receiving telemetry from its initial encounters. 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. More data should help to resolve some of these questions as scientists study Ultima Thule.

In 2015, New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto, which revealed that the dwarf planet is surprisingly diverse, Space.com reported.

The object's illuminated crescent is obscured in the individual edges in light of the fact that a generally long presentation time was utilized amid this fast sweep to support the camera's signal level - however, the science group consolidated and handled the pictures to expel the obscuring and sharpen the thin crescent.

'This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth, ' said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute. Ultima Thule's shape is definitely unique so far in the solar system and its origins could, in turn, refine or change theories about the origin of the solar system itself.

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