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New Horizons Images Show Ultima Thule May Actually Be More 'Pancake'-Shaped

12 February 2019

Taken nearly 10 minutes after New Horizons' closest approach to the object, the final images taken of Ultima Thule show the side of the object not illuminated by the sun against the backdrop of distant stars.

Images of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) designated 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, now show that the two lobes of the KBO 4 billion miles from Earth are not spherical as originally thought. Ultime Thule may fill out those lines, or it may be closer to the flatter shape shown.

"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", explains principal investigator Prof Alan Stern.

"We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun", NASA said in a statement.

Background stars visible in the individual images disappear in the combined, processed image and movie, enabling scientists to obtain a more accurate view of Ultima Thule's two lobes. 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.

Though these are not last Ultima Thule images, as many more are to come- but these images are the final view of New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on January 1. By watching which ones "blinked out" as Ultima passed in front of them, the scientists were able to outline the object's unusual shape. The encounter set a new record for the most distant ever visit to a Solar System object by a spacecraft.

The NASA craft first captured images of the dual-lobed space rock, located more than a billion miles from Pluto, when it reached it on New Year's day.

At first, Ultima Thule appeared as a blurry, snowman-shaped smudge in the blackness of space.

New Horizons is continuing to beam back all its data from its recent close flyby. As it turns out, both the large and small halves of the object (nicknamed "Ultima" and "Thule", respectively) aren't the orbs they were thought to be.

It was expected to discover that the shape of the object is a spherical one.

"But more importantly", he continued, "the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed".

The "departure" movie comprising 14 shots taken by New Horizons during its flyby of Ultima Thule.

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.

Round-trip light time: 12.31 hours. Furthermore, some of the stars in the individual photos "blinked out" as Ultima Thule was passing by, and comparing those images to models and telescope observations, the team was able to get an outline of the object's shape.

New Horizons Images Show Ultima Thule May Actually Be More 'Pancake'-Shaped