New images from NASA confirm Ultima Thule's flat shape


NASA's New Horizons probe mission has once again given boffins something exciting to think about.

Previously scientists called Ultima Thule "snowman" as the first close-up images revealed its two distinct and spherical segments.

On Twitter, Berkeley planetary astronomer Alex Parker commented that the unusual space rock is 'pretty pancake-like, ' with one of its lobes resembling Saturn's flat moon, Atlas.

2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, made history on New Year's Day for becoming the farthest object ever visited by a spacecraft.

It is about four billion miles from Earth and looks like a reddish snowman.

"While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected", said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

But, it spins end-over-end like a propeller.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth, "Stern said".

New Horizons - the legendary spacecraft that captured these images of MU69 - shot the latest sequence of pictures on January 1, 2019, as the spacecraft departed MU69 at 31,000 miles per hour and hurtled deeper into the black abyss of space, toward still-unknown destinations.

Dr Stern said: "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".

Now, it can be confirmed that the two sections of Ultima Thule are not spherical like a snowman, but rather like a giant pancake connected to a smaller, dented walnut.

"But importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed". He added: "We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun".

As New Horizons beams more images through the solar system, we'll nearly certainly continue seeing weird, unprecedented stuff.

MU69 exists in an arrangement known as a contact binary - and, it's now the first a spacecraft has ever explored.

So little was known about MU69 prior to the flyby that NASA was unsure whether it was a single object or, in fact, two objects orbiting around each other.

Pictures in this sequence are available on the New Horizons LORRI website, where raw images from the camera are posted every Friday.

"We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time".

To help bolster the calculation of the shape, the research team observed the background stars in the series of images and noted when they "blinked out", giving an indication of what shapes the two lobes were. New Horizons zipped past it at high speed, after becoming the first visitor to Pluto in 2015.

A sequence of images captured as New Horizons moved away from the object in the Kuiper Belt at a velocity of 50,000 km/hour, taken about 10 minutes after closest approach, show a much flatter appearance.



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