NASA's faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

NASA's faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

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.

Images of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) designated 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, now show that the two lobes of the KBO 4 billion miles from Earth are not spherical as originally thought.

"The first close-up images of Ultima Thule - with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments - had observers calling it a "snowman, '" the government space agency said".

The new images have changed what scientists think. The new shape information indicates that gravity - which contracts more massive bodies into spheres - played perhaps less of a role in contouring the lobes of Ultima Thule than previously thought.

A flat, pancake-like asteroid has never been seen before in our solar system, creating another mystery around Ultima Thule for scientists to solve.

"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view", Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist, said in a statement.

Ultima Thule, the farthest object ever explored, has yet more mysteries to reveal. Stern added that the discovery of its true shape is "creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed". This is a brand new thing - no one has seen something like this orbiting the sun before.

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Because they were taken from a different angle than the approach photos, the team was able to gather complementary information on the actual shape of the object. However, analyses of newly beamed-back images - including many taken soon after closest approach - shows eclipsed stars re-appearing sooner than expected.

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

Sorry, Ultima Thule: no corn cob pipe or button nose for you.

Ultima Thule consists of two parts connected by a bridge that revolve around a common center of mass, not merging with each other. It wasn't until New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto that we finally got our up-close look at the demoted planet.

The object's illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level, but the team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent.

Now, after receiving new images of MU69, planetary scientists suspect that both of its "lobes" are flattish, too.

As the world rang in the beginning of 2019 on 1 January, researchers at NASA were keeping an eye on the New Horizons spacecraft for what would prove to be a defining moment in its multi-year mission.

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