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

11 February, 2019, 22:41 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • Ultima Thule

1, 2019, file image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, encountered by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The images taken by New Horizons also revealed some important scientific information about the object some observers had dubbed the "snowman" because of its appearance being similar to two spheres fused together.

'We had an impression of Ultimate 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.

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.

One lobe looks kind of like an oddly shaped "walnut", the agency said, while the other side looks like more a "pancake". Background stars, many of which are visible in the individual images, were a defining factor in bringing this image of Ultima Thule out of the dark.

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

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"We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun", Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, said in a press release. 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. The hope is that Ultima Thule's structure and composition can reveal new insights on how all planetary bodies came into being just over 4.6 billion years ago.

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

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

Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed. The space rock called 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is located 4 billion miles from Earth.

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 analysing pre-flyby images and ground-based telescope observations.

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. It first wowed Earth after a New Year's Day flyby that beamed back an image somewhat resembling a space snowman or BB-8. Image processing saw the sliver sharpened and a short animation produced to show off 2014 MU69's flatter-than-thought shape.

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