New images from NASA confirm Ultima Thule's flat shape


The most distant world ever visited by humanity has left scientists puzzled after Nasa's New Horizons spacecraft craft offered a departing view of a space rock nicknamed "Ultima Thule".

The first image the probe beamed back showed two reddish-coloured spherical segments on top of each other, like a snowman.

They first thought they knew how the Ultima Thule looked when seeing the images that came back to Earth, which had totally changed their view.

New Horizons took this image of the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule) on January 1, 2019, when the NASA spacecraft was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond it. 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.

"Ultima", the larger of the two lobes, is actually more like one of those excessively fluffy pancakes, while the smaller lobe (nicknamed "Thule") looks like a disappointingly deflated party balloon (or "dented walnut", according to scientists).

"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view", said Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist. As new data makes the more than four-billion mile journey to Earth, the Kuiper belt object's shape is coming into well, shape. The new images show that the share of object was flat, unlike the sphere. 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. They were captured from a different angle than the approach photos, which is why they provide new insight into Ultima Thule's shape.

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'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'. Ultima Thule isn't spherical.

When viewed from the front, Ultima Thule still resembles a two-ball snowman.

The incredible images confirmed some predictions and dispelled others, revealing MU69 to be a snowman-shaped world with a rusty red hue that spins end-over-end like a propeller.

The object's illuminated crescent was initially blurred in individual frames because a long exposure was required during the rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level, but scientists have since been able to remove the blur and sharpen the thin crescent.

The new images weren't very clear.

NASA composed this new model by observing Ultima Thule over time, watching which background stars blinked out and which did not as the asteroid rotated. The small size of New Horizons' radio antenna, combined with its low power output and distance from Earth, mean data transmission rates are glacial. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system".