New images from NASA confirm Ultima Thule's flat shape


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. 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.

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.

Raw (left) and processed (right) images of Ultima Thule as the New Horizons space craft sped away.

The larger lobe, nicknamed "Ultima", more closely resembles a giant pancake and the smaller lobe, nicknamed "Thule", is shaped like a dented walnut.

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. He added: "We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun". "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

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.

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The bottom view is NASA's current best shape model for Ultima Thule, but still carries some uncertainty as an entire region was essentially hidden from view, and not illuminated by the Sun, during the New Horizons flyby.

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. The space rock called 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is located 4 billion miles from Earth. 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. That glowing crescent visible in the darkness was actually blurred in the individual frames due to the extended exposure time used to give the camera's signal level a boost during what was a really rapid scan. The focal edge of the grouping was gone up against January 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) past Ultima Thule, and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. Ultima Thule's shape is definitely unique so far in the solar system and its origins could, in turn, refine or change theories about the origin of the solar system itself. Scientists discovered its snowman-like structure after New Horizons began sending images to us here on Earth.

The primitive world was "born" this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the odd shape, the team explains.

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.

Scientists' understanding of Ultima Thule has changed as they review additional data.