New Photos Show Mysterious Object Ultima Thule Is Actually Flat

13 February, 2019, 22:26 | Author: Sherry Houston
  • The latest conceptions of the shape of MU69

When the robotic New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past the distant asteroid Ultima Thule (officially 2014 MU69) in early January, early images showed two circular lobes that when most simply extrapolated to 3D were thought to be, roughly, spheres.

New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule occurred some 6.5 billion km from Earth.

The sequence of images was taken almost 10 minutes after the spacecraft's closest point of approach with the distant world (four billion miles away from our planet), and are just the latest in a trove of images New Horizons will send back to Earth.

Stars can be seen "blinking out" in the background of an animation created from several images stitched together as New Horizons flew by.

Compared to the first close-up images of Ultima Thule, which appeared to show two spherical shaped objects, analysis of the new images revealed that the two sections of the KBO are not actually spherical, but more of flat in shape.

The "departure" movie comprising 14 shots taken by New Horizons during its flyby of Ultima Thule.

"Most of the so called "Ultima" is like a big pancake, but smaller, "Tula", reminiscent of a flattened walnut" - the researchers note.

"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view", said Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist.

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Ultima Thule - considered a contact binary - is the most distant world ever explored.

"We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun".

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.

Pictures released late last week - taken shortly after closest approach on New Year's Day - provide an outline of the side not illuminated by the sun.

Ultima Thule is an unusual object found in the Kuiper Belt.

"Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery", said Stern. At left: An "average" of 10 photos taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI); the crescent is blurred because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level.

Even after New Horizons said goodbye to Ultima Thule, its final glimpse has revealed something completely unexpected. Scientists estimate that it'll take the spacecraft around 20 months to send all the flyby images and measurements, so it's expected that we're going to learn a lot more about the icy object inside the Kuiper belt. Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said: "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system".

Snapshots from New Horizons' Jan. 1 flyby will continue streaming back to Earth.

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