New images from NASA confirm Ultima Thule's flat shape

The latest conceptions of the shape of MU69

The latest conceptions of the shape of MU69More

After the 13-year-old New Horizons spacecraft eventually swooped by the frozen rock on New Years Day 2019, the object graduated to a snowman-shaped frozen rock.

Final photos from NASA's unmanned New Horizons spacecraft show the object that's about 4 billion miles away from the Earth is actually flat. However, analysis of both the approach and departure images have changed this view because of the revealing of an outline, which was not seen before as it was not illuminated by the sun. There have been different assumptions about its appearance: the most recent, based on images taken within a day of the beginning of the new year, was that both parts - Ultima, the large lobe, and Thule, the smaller one, were almost flawless spheres, barely touching each other, which NASA described as being just like a giant space snowman.

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The image sequence released this week were taken as New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule at more than 31,000 mph, at a distance of about 5,500 miles.

However these latest images have given a different perspective and show the larger segment, "Ultima", is actually flat and resembles a giant pancake, while the smaller portion "Thule" is shaped like a "dented walnut", said NASA. Now, new images have raised even more questions about the mysterious object. While KBOs were once far more common than they are now, the most distant areas of our planetary system probably never contained as much bulk material as the areas closer to the Sun. A relatively long exposure time was used to maximise the camera's signal level at the expense of some blurring of the KBO's crescent. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. It's the best photo of Ultima Thule available, but it appears to have captured the contact binary face-on, rather than from the edge. Most of the time, we can only make guesses based on images our terrestrial telescopes and a few orbital satellites have captured of celestial objects few spacecraft have reached. 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.

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Ultima Thule is said to be the most distant world ever explored.

"The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images", said Simon Porter, Co-investigator for the New Horizons project at the Southwest Research Institute in charge of the effort to model the shape of the KBO. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system".

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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.

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