New Horizons Images Show Ultima Thule May Actually Be More 'Pancake'-Shaped

12 February, 2019, 06:57 | Author: Tara Reeves
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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft offers an evocative series of an image- a departing view of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) nicknamed Ultima Thule.

"The first close-up images of Ultima Thule - with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments - had observers calling it a "snowman, '" the government space agency said". However, analysis of both the approach and departure images have changed this view because of the revealing of an outline, which was not seen before as it was not illuminated by the sun. Mission team members initially thought Ultima Thule resembles a snowman but now believe the object to be flattened.

The mission's principal investigator Alan Stern said that the new data raises even more questions about the peculiar structure: "More importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed". "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake". As new data makes the more than four-billion mile journey to Earth, the Kuiper belt object's shape is coming into well, shape. While KBOs were once far more common than they are now, the most distant areas of our planetary system probably never contained as much bulk material as the areas closer to the Sun.

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.

NASA's new observations, however, reveal a flatter and more pancake-like space rock. 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.

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"Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery", said Stern. By watching which ones "blinked out" as Ultima passed in front of them, the scientists were able to outline the object's unusual shape. Add the fact that the spacecraft used long exposure times to boost the camera's signal level, and you've got some heavy blurring going on.

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.

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. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".

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.

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