Science

NASA Ultima Thule pictures: New Horizons snaps breathtaking view of 'snowman asteroid'

NASA Ultima Thule pictures: New Horizons snaps breathtaking view of 'snowman asteroid'

Fascinating fresh images have been taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft showing a view of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) - MU69, which goes by the nickname Ultima Thule. A sequence of 14 close-up images taken when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 km) past Ultima Thule has completely changed the way scientists think the rock is shaped.

"The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images", said New Horizons co-investigator Simon Porter.

Ultima Thule first seemed to be an amalgam of two vaguely spherical objects, but the new image is telling us that appearances can be deceiving, especially at 4.1 billion miles away.

"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view", Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist, said in a statement.

Mission scientists created this "departure movie" from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly after the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on January 1, 2019. "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake".

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth, "Stern said. We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun", he added".




The bottom view is NASA's current best shape model for Ultima Thule, but still carries some uncertainty as an entire region was essentially hidden from view, and not illuminated by the Sun, during the New Horizons flyby. Mission team members initially thought Ultima Thule resembles a snowman but now believe the object to be flattened.

The new views were captured from a different angle than the snowman-suggesting photos, and they show Ultima Thule's outline against a number of background stars.

New Horizons still has much more data to send back to Earth, as its data connection over the 44.4 astronomical units (6.6 billion km) is pretty slow.

Stars can be seen "blinking out" in the background of an animation created from several images stitched together as New Horizons flew by. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery". The shape is relatively unprecedented in scientific observations of the solar system.

While the newly released images are the final ones New Horizons snapped of Ultima, they're far from the last pieces of data we'll see from the probe. By seeing when they blinked out they put together the important new information about the actual shape of Ultima Thule. New data from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is posted here each Friday, for those interested in seeing the raw image files before processing.

It is safe to say the new apparent shape of Ultima Thule will only increase the interest of scientists studying this object-humans have never observed an object like this in the distant Kuiper Belt so closely before.