Wednesday, 21 August, 2019

The truly odd shape of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule Space Pancake NASA's New Horizons Shows New Snaps of Distant World Ultima Thule NASA. JHUAPL SwRI
Sandy Nunez | 11 February, 2019, 22:45

Now, it can be confirmed that the two sections of Ultima Thule are not spherical like a snowman, but rather like a giant pancake connected to a smaller, dented walnut.

We have never explored a world more distant than the mysterious Kuiper Belt object (KBO) otherwise known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule.

The newly released images brought crucial data to the scientists who strung 14 of these images into a short departure movie. On that day, it had its close-up flyby of the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule, a chunk of space debris that had previously caught the eye of astronomers of Earth.

However, more analysis of approach images and new departure images have changed that view.

'But more importantly, 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". This set, according to NASA, was captured almost 10 minutes after the ship crossed its closest approach. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left.

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

The new views were captured from a different angle than the snowman-suggesting photos, and they show Ultima Thule's outline against a number of background stars. New data sent back to Earth has meant they'll need to rework our understanding about the shape of 2014 MU69 (aka Ultima Thule).

New Horizons flew within 2,200 miles of MU69, travelling at a speed of 32,200 mph. 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.

As New Horizons beams more images through the solar system, we'll nearly certainly continue seeing weird, unprecedented stuff. By noting which of these stars went dark as Ultima blocked them out, mission scientists were able to map out the object's (surprisingly flat) shape.

The discovery of MU69's considerably more svelte dimensions has scientists scratching their heads on how the shape of the thing fits in with current thinking on planetary formation. New data from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is posted here each Friday, for those interested in seeing the raw image files before processing.