NASA's faraway space snowman Ultima Thule has flat, not round, behind


Enlarge The"old view of Ultima Thule is on top. The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima

NASA's unmanned New Horizons spacecraft gets a new view of the space rock, Ultima Thule, from a different angle.

Photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body four billion miles away.

Specifically, as shown in the featured illustration, it now appears that the larger lobe - Ultima - is more similar to a fluffy pancake than a sphere, while the smaller lobe - Thule - resembles a dented walnut. We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun'.

While NASA's New Horizons zipped by MU69 over a month ago, NASA scientists will continue receiving data about the object well over a year from now.

The final photos that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft snapped of Ultima Thule during the probe's epic January 1 flyby reveal the distant object to be far flatter than scientists had thought, mission team members announced today (Feb. 8). Now, the eerie outline that was just released has revealed even more about its shape than scientists anticipated.

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule - with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments - had observers calling it a "snowman". New Horizons' camera was forced to use a longer exposure time to capture the photos, blurring the images.

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.

"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 [the object] is much flatter than originally believed and much flatter than expected", said New Horizons project scientists Hal Weaver. However, more investigation of methodology pictures and these new flight pictures have changed that see, partially by uncovering a diagram of the bit of the KBO that was not lit up by the Sun, yet could be "followed out" as it hindered the view to foundation stars.

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.

Sorry, Ultima Thule: no corn cob pipe or button nose for you.

Mission scientists used 14 of these images to create a movie showing New Horizons' departure from its second target. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers).

'But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed.

Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed.

Round-trip light time: 12.31 hours.

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