New Horizons' faraway target is 'pretty pancake-like,' scientists discover

Rodiano Bonacci
Febbraio 11, 2019

Scientists studying the distant object known as Ultima Thule are revising ideas about its shape after examining the latest images downlinked to Earth.

'We had an impression of Ultimate Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view, ' Stern said. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun.

Though these are not last Ultima Thule images, as many more are to come- but these images are the final view of New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on January 1. The probe aced this encounter in July 2015, revealing the dwarf planet to be a spectacularly diverse world of surprisingly varied and rugged landscapes. By seeing when they blinked out they put together the important new information about the actual shape of Ultima Thule. This object is about 21 miles (34 kilometers) long and lies 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto's orbit. Meanwhile, the smaller lobe (Thule) is shaped like a dented walnut, said the scientists.

Ultima Thule first seemed to be an amalgam of two vaguely spherical objects, but the new image is telling us that appearances can be deceiving, especially at 4.1 billion miles away.

A snowman, with a distinctly reddish hue.

The most distant object our species has ever visited, a space rock called 2014 MU69, is less snowman-shaped than scientists previously thought. The dashed blue lines represent uncertainty, indicating that Ultima Thule could be either flatter than, or not as flat as, depicted in this figure.

Plenty more images will be released in due course - but only slowly.

"It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake", Alan Stern, who heads the New Horizons mission, said in a statement.

This interpretation is evident from the data acquired by the Nasa spacecraft when it looked back at icy Ultima Thule as it zoomed past at 50,000km/h.

As New Horizons beams more images through the solar system, we'll nearly certainly continue seeing weird, unprecedented stuff.

Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said, "While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatters than originally believed, and much flatter than expected".

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

While these are far from the final photos of Ultima Thule that New Horizons will send back, they do represent the spacecraft's last glimpses of the rock as it streaked away.

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