New images from NASA confirm Ultima Thule's flat shape

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

New images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows the departing view of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object that was the target of the Jan.1 flyby.

The images of the KBO - officially named 2014 MU69 - were captured by the New Horizons as it raced away at over 50,000 kilometers per hour on January 1.

The primary close-up pictures of Ultima Thule - with its two particular and, evidently, circular fragments - had onlookers considering it a "snowman". However, more analysis of approach images and new departure images have changed that view. There have been different assumptions about its appearance: the most recent, based on images taken within a day of the beginning of the new year, was that both parts - Ultima, the large lobe, and Thule, the smaller one, were almost ideal spheres, barely touching each other, which NASA described as being just like a giant space snowman.

Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or "lobes") of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

However these latest images have given a different perspective and show the larger segment, "Ultima", is actually flat and resembles a giant pancake, while the smaller portion "Thule" is shaped like a "dented walnut", said NASA. Now, the eerie outline that was just released has revealed even more about its shape than scientists anticipated.

"We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun", Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, said in a press release.

'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'.

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

At first, Ultima Thule appeared as a blurry, snowman-shaped smudge in the blackness of space.

The discovery of MU69's considerably more svelte dimensions has scientists scratching their heads on how the shape of the thing fits in with current thinking on planetary formation. The spacecraft managed to capture a side view of the asteroid while flying past, and this edge-on view lets the New Horizons team calculate the asteroid's thickness.

Because they were taken from a different angle than the approach photos, the team was able to gather complementary information on the actual shape of the object. That glowing crescent visible in the darkness was actually blurred in the individual frames due to the extended exposure time used to give the camera's signal level a boost during what was a really rapid scan.

Even after New Horizons said goodbye to Ultima Thule, its final glimpse has revealed something completely unexpected. The shape is relatively unprecedented in scientific observations of the solar system.

'That bowling pin is gone, ' the leader of the New Horizons joked, in reference to the first blurry images sent home after the flyby.

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