Ultima Thule is Flat, And Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong

Pablo Tucker
February 11, 2019

While these are far from the final photos of Ultima Thule that New Horizons will send back, they do represent the spacecraft's last glimpses of the rock as it streaked away. 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.

However, after images of the flying and spinning object were received, Ultima Thule has turned out to be different from the way it had been originally described at first glance. Thanks to some processing and tracking which stars are being blocked by Ultima Thule's shape, scientists at NASA were able to get a better estimate of the KBO's body.

Based on the new images, the larger lobe (nicknamed Ultima) appears to more closely resemble a giant pancake.

"But importantly, 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", he added.


Though these are not last Ultima Thule images, as many more are to come- but these images are the final view of New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on January 1. Ultima Thule is actually composed of two joined shapes, named "Ultima" and "Thule", that were first thought to be both spherical, earning the nickname "snowman".

The newly released images brought crucial data to the scientists who strung 14 of these images into a short departure movie.

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, said: "This is really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth".

What initially looked like an upside-down two-ball anthropomorphic snow sculpture floating in space is actually a "contact binary": two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge. The object's illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level - but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent. As it's situated in the Kuiper Belt about 4.1 billion miles from Earth, there's much about MU69 that scientists are still learning.


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

In 2015, New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto, which revealed that the dwarf planet is surprisingly diverse, Space.com reported.

Another member of the NASA team, Hal Weaver, said that with these new findings, the academic community will undoubtedly be motivated by new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system, with more images soon to be returned from New Horizons.

New Horizons' first images confirmed some predictions and dispelled others, revealing MU69 to be a snowman-shaped world with a rusty red hue that spins end-over-end like a propeller.


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