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NASA's faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

11 February 2019, 10:42 | Dale Webster

NASA's faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

NASA's faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

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).

It's not that easy to get accurate photos of the complete form of Ultima Thule, considering factors like distance from the sun, the side facing the light, and New Horizon's 50,000 km/h speed.

The latest images were taken almost 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point, which were the final views New Horizons captured of Ultima Thule, said a NASA release on Friday. The new photos reveal a dramatically different object because they were taken from a different angle than the images that were downloaded first.

"It would be closer to reality to say MU69's shape is flatter, like a pancake", Stern added.

However, more analysis of approach images and new departure images have changed that view.

"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 said.

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby. 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. Meanwhile, the smaller lobe (Thule) is shaped like a dented walnut, said the scientists.




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

What initially looked like an upside-down two-ball anthropomorphic snow sculpture floating in space is actually a "contact binary": two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge. The space rock called 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is located 4 billion miles from Earth. At left: An "average" of 10 photos taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI); the crescent is blurred because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth", mission principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement.

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'. Mission managers hope to target an even more distant celestial object in this so-called Kuiper Belt, on the frozen fringes of the solar system, if the spacecraft remains healthy.

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.



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