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

Gwen Vasquez
February 11, 2019

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by the twin space rocks known collectively as Ultima Thule earlier this year, the images it sent back seemed to show a "space snowman" in all its glory.

It turns out 2014 MU69-the most distant entity ever explored-is less of a plump snowman, and more of a deflated Christmas lawn ornament.

"The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images", said New Horizons co-investigator Simon Porter.

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.

"But more importantly", he continued, "the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed". He added: "We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun".

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 image to the left is an "average" of ten images. Mission scientists have been able to process the image, removing the motion blur to produce a sharper, brighter view of Ultima Thule's thin crescent.

NASA composed this new model by observing Ultima Thule over time, watching which background stars blinked out and which did not as the asteroid rotated. 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.

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Until now, Ultima Thule was thought to be oddly snowman-like - built from two spherical rocks, where one is larger than the other. Now New Horizons is bidding farewell to another long-distance neighbor, but not before throwing scientists new puzzles to munch on about the odd Ultima Thule.

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of awesome photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69.

"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. The flyby gave scientists the opportunity to collect photos and information about the rock that they hope will help solve some longstanding mysteries about the solar system's 4.5 billion years of history.

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

But it will take about 20 months for New Horizons to send all of the images it captured back to Earth, and scientists' understanding of the rock is changing as fresh perspectives get revealed.

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.

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