Holy planetesimal formation, Batman! Ultima Thule's no snowman - it's a friggin' pancake

Ultima Thule

When New Horizons dipped in close to the distant object MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, just after midnight on New Year's Day, it captured humanity's first clear look at an object in the Kuiper Belt more than four billion miles from home.

However, after images of the flying and spinning object were received, Ultima Thule has turned out to be different from the way it had been originally described at first glance. New data sent back to Earth has meant they'll need to rework our understanding about the shape of 2014 MU69 (aka Ultima Thule).

"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.

Based on the new images, the larger lobe (nicknamed Ultima) appears to more closely resemble a giant pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. "We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun".

NASA's New Horizons took this image of Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019, from a distance of 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers). The bottom view is the team'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. The photos were taken almost 10 minutes after the probe passed its closest point to the rock.

Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or "lobes") of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

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As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of unbelievable photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4bn miles away from Earth", said the mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern. However, analysis of both the approach and departure images have changed this view because of the revealing of an outline, which was not seen before as it was not illuminated by the sun. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

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. The flyby gave scientists the opportunity to collect photos and information about the rock that they hope will help solve some longstanding mysteries about the solar system's 4.5 billion years of history.

In 2015, New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto, which revealed that the dwarf planet is surprisingly diverse, Space.com reported. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system".

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.

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