"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 Horizons mission from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed the shape of the most distant object ever explored, Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", to be flat rather than spherical, according to latest images the spacecraft sent back to Earth. 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.
Ultima Thule, or more specifically Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69, is a so-called trans-Neptunian binary rock in the Kuiper Belt, a field of asteroids in the outer reaches of the solar system.
New Horizons may have moved on from Ultima Thule, but it still has plenty of images stored in its robotic brain.
They are less certain how the object came to be, which will remain the biggest puzzle they will try to solve in the coming days while waiting for more of New Horizon's last images to arrive. "We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun". 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. 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.
The images taken by New Horizons also revealed some important scientific information about the object some observers had dubbed the "snowman" because of its appearance being similar to two spheres fused together.
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"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth", Stern added. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".
Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed.
Watching which background stars "blinked out" as the object passed in front of them allowed scientists to outline the shape of both lobes, which was then compared to a model assembled from analysing pre-flyby images and ground-based telescope observations.
In 2015, New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto, which revealed that the dwarf planet is surprisingly diverse, Space.com reported. The central frame of this sequence was taken on January 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".
As New Horizons beams more images through the solar system, we'll nearly certainly continue seeing weird, unprecedented stuff.
A sequence of 14 images taken by New Horizons has been processed and strung together to show the shape and movement of this odd object.