Ultima Thule’s peculiar shape is a puzzle for scientists

Cristina Cross
February 12, 2019

The final photos that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft snapped of Ultima Thule during the probe's epic January 1 flyby reveal the distant object to be far flatter than scientists had thought, mission team members announced today (Feb. 8).

New photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. By combining the approach images that had already been taken and looking at stars obscured by the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as New Horizons hurtled past, scientists have been able to trace an outline of 2014 MU69. Fascinating fresh images have been taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft showing a view of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) - MU69, which goes by the nickname Ultima Thule.

Stringing 14 of the latest images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists confirmed that the two sections, or "lobes", of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

"We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view", explains principal investigator Prof Alan Stern.

"The larger lobe, nicknamed 'Ultima, ' more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed 'Thule, ' is shaped like a dented walnut", the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (where the mission is headquartered) detailed online.

The new images were some of the last New Horizons snapped as it zoomed past the distant object at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour.

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This illustration shows NASA's old and new views of Ultima Thule. More data should help to resolve some of these questions as scientists study Ultima Thule. 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.

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

'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'. It's located about 1 billion miles past dwarf-planet Pluto, which New Horizons visited in 2015.

Now, after receiving new images of MU69, planetary scientists suspect that both of its "lobes" are flattish, too.

Scientists believe that out here in this remote frigid realm, objects like MU69 have been frozen in pristine condition since the onset of the solar system some 4 billion years ago. The researchers have found that the object does indeed have two lobes as thought, but neither lobe is spherical. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of unbelievable photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69. Raw images from the camera are posted to the site each Friday.

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