New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

  • New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule - with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments - had observers calling it a "snowman". The new images, taken when New Horizons was almost 9,000km from Ultima Thule, will give Moore's team plenty to chew over.

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. The space rock called 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is located 4 billion miles from Earth.

The departure images were taken from a different angle than the approach photos and reveal complementary information on Ultima Thule's shape. The dashed blue lines span the uncertainty in that hemisphere, which shows that Ultima Thule could be either flatter than, or not as flat as, depicted in this figure.

After analyzing these new images, scientists say the larger lobe more closely resembles a large pancake, and the smaller lobe looks a bit like a walnut.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has beamed back new images of Ultima Thule, which show that the most distant world ever explored is much flatter than previously thought. 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. New Horizons took the long-exposure photos about 10 minutes after closest approach; the central frame in the sequence was snapped from a distance of 5,494 miles (8,862 km), mission team members said. According to NASA, scientists were able to deduce its shape by "tracing" the part of these images that blocked out stars in the background on the side that wasn't clearly outlined by the Sun. It'll take a total of about 20 months for New Horizons to send home all of its flyby imagery and measurements, mission team members have said. Stern added that the discovery of its true shape is "creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed".

The departure pictures were taken from an unexpected point in comparison to the methodology photographs and uncover integral data on Ultima Thule's shape. But that impression changed shortly before closest approach, which occurred just after midnight on New Year's Day and brought the probe within 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of the mysterious body.

The object's illuminated crescent is obscured in the individual edges in light of the fact that a generally long presentation time was utilized amid this fast sweep to support the camera's signal level - however, the science group consolidated and handled the pictures to expel the obscuring and sharpen the thin crescent.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth", said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute. 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.