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techkenyot.com February 21, 2019


New Horizons' faraway target is 'pretty pancake-like,' scientists discover

11 February 2019, 10:44 | Edward Lowe

Enlarge The"old view of Ultima Thule is on top. The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima

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The final photos that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft snapped of Ultima Thule during the probe's epic January 1 flyby reveal the distant object to be far flatter than scientists had thought, mission team members announced today (Feb. 8). The new images, taken when New Horizons was almost 9,000km from Ultima Thule, will give Moore's team plenty to chew over. NASA on Friday released a video compiled using more than a dozen images that show Ultima Thule may actually be, uh, much flatter than initially thought.

Rather than being two relatively spherical bodies in contact with each other, Ultima Thule in this new analysis is determined to be much more squashed.

"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", principal investigator Alan Stern said in a statement.

Raw (left) and processed (right) images of Ultima Thule as the New Horizons space craft sped away.

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After analyzing these new images, scientists say the larger lobe more closely resembles a large pancake, and the smaller lobe looks a bit like a walnut. 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.

"But more importantly", he continued, "the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun", he added. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

New Horizons may have moved on from Ultima Thule, but it still has plenty of images stored in its robotic brain. That glowing crescent visible in the darkness was actually blurred in the individual frames due to the extended exposure time used to give the camera's signal level a boost during what was a really rapid scan.

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of fantastic photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69. By seeing when they blinked out they put together the important new information about the actual shape of Ultima Thule. The space rock called 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is located 4 billion miles from Earth. Objects like Ultima Thule represent an even earlier stage in that process, frozen in time for billions of years.

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Stars can be seen "blinking out" in the background of an animation created from several images stitched together as New Horizons flew by.

New Horizons' first 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. Ultima Thule's shape is definitely unique so far in the solar system and its origins could, in turn, refine or change theories about the origin of the solar system itself.

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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