New images from NASA confirm Ultima Thule's flat shape

Mindy Sparks
February 11, 2019

Ultima Thule is actually composed of two joined shapes, named "Ultima" and "Thule", that were first thought to be both spherical, earning the nickname "snowman".

Initial imagery taken during New Horizons' approach suggested that Ultima Thule is shaped like a bowling pin. 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. According to principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun". The image to the left is an "average" of ten images.

Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed. 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. By seeing when they blinked out they put together the important new information about the actual shape of Ultima Thule.

This interpretation is evident from the data acquired by the Nasa spacecraft when it looked back at icy Ultima Thule as it zoomed past at 50,000km/h.

Fascinating fresh images have been taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft showing a view of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) - MU69, which goes by the nickname Ultima Thule. The photos were taken almost 10 minutes after the probe passed its closest point to the rock.

Based on the New Horizons observations so far, the scientists say Ultima has a "very regular" rotation period, at about 15 hours.

Based on the new images, the larger lobe (nicknamed Ultima) appears to more closely resemble a giant pancake.

They are less certain how the object came to be, which will remain the biggest puzzle they will try to solve in the coming days while waiting for more of New Horizon's last images to arrive.

The images were taken almost 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point. By watching which ones "blinked out" as Ultima passed in front of them, the scientists were able to outline the object's odd shape. It'll take a total of about 20 months for New Horizons to send home all of its flyby imagery and measurements, mission team members have said.

The departure pictures were taken from an unexpected point in comparison to the methodology photographs and uncover integral data on Ultima Thule's shape.

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.

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 4 billion miles away from Earth, "Stern said". 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".

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