New Horizons beams back a new revelation about Ultima Thule

Christopher Davidson
February 13, 2019

The latest image sequence from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft offers a new perspective on Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule.

The image sequence released this week were taken as New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule at more than 31,000 mph, at a distance of about 5,500 miles.

The latest images were taken almost 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point, which was the final views New Horizons captured of Ultima Thule, said a NASA release on Friday.

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 Horizons may have moved on from Ultima Thule, but it still has plenty of images stored in its robotic brain.

The Flat Earth Society may finally have a reason to rejoice over something, as the most recent photos taken by New Horizons show that the mysterious object Ultima Thule is actually flat. The departure images are changing the view from spherical to more like what NASA calls "a giant pancake" for larger lobe Ultima and "a dented walnut" for smaller lobe Thule.

Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed. This is something new for the scientific community and no similar object was discovered before, which leads to numerous questions. "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun", he added.

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The departure images were taken from a different angle than the approach photos, revealing fresh information about the freakish celestial body.

Scientists estimate Ultima Thule is about 19 miles long; its dual sections measuring 12 miles across ("Ultima") and nine miles across ("Thule"). It's the best photo of Ultima Thule available, but it appears to have captured the contact binary face-on, rather than from the edge.

Many background stars are also seen in the individual images; watching which stars "blinked out" as the object passed in front them allowed scientists to outline the shape of both lobes, which could then be compared to a model assembled from analyzing pre-flyby images and ground-based telescope observations.

'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'.

On Twitter, Berkeley planetary astronomer Alex Parker commented that the unusual space rock is 'pretty pancake-like, ' with one of its lobes resembling Saturn's flat moon, Atlas. 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.

As the world rang in the beginning of 2019 on 1 January, researchers at NASA were keeping an eye on the New Horizons spacecraft for what would prove to be a defining moment in its multi-year mission. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".

Even after New Horizons said goodbye to Ultima Thule, its final glimpse has revealed something completely unexpected.

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