New Horizons beams back a new revelation about Ultima Thule

New Horizons beams back a new revelation about Ultima Thule

New Horizons beams back a new revelation about Ultima Thule

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). But as more data were analyzed, including several highly evocative crescent images taken almost 10 minutes after closest approach, a "new view" of the object's shape emerged. Now, astronomers have been thrown for a loop when New Horizons' final series of images of Ultima Thule reveal that the twin rocks aren't actually round. Photos snapped around that time indicated that Ultima Thule is composed of two lobes, both of which appeared to be roughly spherical.

The larger lobe, nicknamed "Ultima", more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed "Thule", is shaped like a dented walnut, according to the mission team. New data sent back to Earth has meant they'll need to rework our understanding about the shape of 2014 MU69 (aka Ultima Thule).

"But more importantly", he continued, "the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed". We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery". The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima Thule, but still carries some uncertainty as an entire region was essentially hidden from view, and not illuminated by the Sun, during the New Horizons flyby. Ultima Thule is approximately 4.1 billion miles from Earth and about 1 billion miles past Pluto, making it the most distant celestial object ever explored. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left.

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The new views were captured from a different angle than the snowman-suggesting photos, and they show Ultima Thule's outline against a number of background stars.

The object's illuminated crescent was initially blurred in individual frames because a long exposure was required during the rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level, but scientists have since been able to remove the blur and sharpen the thin crescent. New photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.

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

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The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

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. 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.

The latest pictures were taken when New Horizons was about 8,000km from the object.

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