NASA's New Horizons unveils unique shape of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft recently flew past the object dubbed Ultima Thule at a blistering speed, but not before snapping a few photos.

New Horizons performed its farthest flyby when it approached Ultima Thule within 2,200 miles (about 3,540 km) of the surface at a velocity of 31,500 miles (about 50,694 km) per hour on January 1.

The images taken by New Horizons also revealed some important scientific information about the object some observers had dubbed the "snowman" because of its appearance being similar to two spheres fused together. However, analyses of newly beamed-back images - including many taken soon after closest approach - shows eclipsed stars re-appearing sooner than expected.

A sequence of 14 images taken by New Horizons has been processed and strung together to show the shape and movement of this odd object.

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"We had an impression of Ultima 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 in the statement.

"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). Images taken 10 minutes after the approach highlighted a view of the object's crescent, giving scientists a better idea of its actual shape. "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun", he added.

This illustration shows NASA's old and new views of Ultima Thule. Background stars, many of which are visible in the individual images, were a defining factor in bringing this image of Ultima Thule out of the dark. The movie is compiled from 14 different images of Ultima Thule.

Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery". Objects like Ultima Thule represent an even earlier stage in that process, frozen in time for billions of years. It wasn't until New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto that we finally got our up-close look at the demoted planet.

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For that ghostly outline to emerge, the science team needed to combine and sharpen multiple images.

But there is still some uncertainty about the true shape of the object because vast swathes if its surface are hidden away from the Sun's light. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".

Data rate from New Horizons to Goldstone: 1.68 kb/sec. New Horizons' camera was forced to use a longer exposure time to capture the photos, blurring the images.

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