New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

Pancakes in space? No that's just the mysterious MU69

The sequence of images was taken almost 10 minutes after the spacecraft's closest point of approach with the distant world (four billion miles away from our planet), and are just the latest in a trove of images New Horizons will send back to Earth.

NASA's NewHorizons flew past Ultima Thule, an object located in a region of primordial objects 1 billion miles past Pluto. New data sent back to Earth has meant they'll need to rework our understanding about the shape of 2014 MU69 (aka Ultima Thule).

"The larger lobe, nicknamed 'Ultima, ' more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed 'Thule, ' is shaped like a dented walnut", the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (where the mission is headquartered) detailed online.

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. According to principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun". The image to the left is an "average" of ten images.

"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". Mission scientists have been able to process the image, removing the motion blur to produce a sharper, brighter view of Ultima Thule's thin crescent.

Initial imagery taken during New Horizons' approach suggested that Ultima Thule is shaped like a bowling pin. 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.

Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or "lobes") of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

What initially looked like an upside-down two-ball anthropomorphic snow sculpture floating in space is actually a "contact binary": two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge.

Scientists believe that out here in this remote frigid realm, objects like MU69 have been frozen in pristine condition since the onset of the solar system some 4 billion years ago.

'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'. "However, more analysis of approach images and these new departure images have changed that view, in part by revealing an outline of the portion of the KBO that was not illuminated by the Sun, but could be 'traced out" as it blocked the view to background stars".

New Horizons - the legendary spacecraft that captured these images of MU69 - shot the latest sequence of pictures on January 1, 2019, as the spacecraft departed MU69 at 31,000 miles per hour and hurtled deeper into the black abyss of space, toward still-unknown destinations.

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

Another member of the NASA team, Hal Weaver, said that with these new findings, the academic community will undoubtedly be motivated by new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system, with more images soon to be returned from New Horizons.

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