New Horizons final Ultima Thule images reveal true shape

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Enlarge The"old view of Ultima Thule is on top. The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima

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. The image to the left is an "average" of ten images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager; the crescent is blurred in the raw frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level.

A sequence of images captured as New Horizons moved away from the object in the Kuiper Belt at a velocity of 50,000 km/hour, taken about 10 minutes after closest approach, show a much flatter appearance.

Mission scientists created this "departure movie" from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly after the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on January 1, 2019.

Based on the New Horizons observations so far, the scientists say Ultima has a "very regular" rotation period, at about 15 hours.

"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view", Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist, said in a statement. The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima Thule.

"But more importantly", he continued, "the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed".

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"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.

Ultima Thule is the single farthest object in the solar system and for the first time in spacefaring history, humans are exploring it in great detail.

A new image sequence from the spacecraft's departing view of MU69 shows it isn't actually made up of spheroidal segments, as first thought - instead, its two lobes are flat like pancakes. By seeing when they blinked out they put together the important new information about the actual shape of Ultima Thule.

"Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery", said Stern. New photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. 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.

The images that shocked New Horizons' scientists will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week. The researchers have found that the object does indeed have two lobes as thought, but neither lobe is spherical.

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. Yep, Ultima Thule is more of a space pancake than a snowman.

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