Sunday, 17 February, 2019

New Horizons Reveals Ultima Thule's Surprisingly Weird Shape

Ultima Thule New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists
Sandra Phillips | 12 February, 2019, 08:27

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by the twin space rocks known collectively as Ultima Thule earlier this year, the images it sent back seemed to show a "space snowman" in all its glory.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth, "Stern said".

"Most of the so called "Ultima" is like a big pancake, but smaller, "Tula", reminiscent of a flattened walnut" - the researchers note.

According to principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, "We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun".

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. 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.

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Part of what makes Ultima Thule so interesting is that it's a veritable time capsule from the oldest era in our Solar System. The movie clearly reveals that neither of Ultima Thule's lobes is spherical, in part because the departure photos outline of parts of the KBO that block out background stars in spite of being in shadow. The dashed blue lines represent uncertainty, indicating that Ultima Thule could be either flatter than, or not as flat as, depicted in this figure. As more data were analyzed, including several highly evocative crescent images taken almost 10 minutes after closest approach, a "new view" of the object's shape emerged. However, analyses of newly beamed-back images - including many taken soon after closest approach - shows eclipsed stars re-appearing sooner than expected.

The departure pictures were taken from an unexpected point in comparison to the methodology photographs and uncover integral data on Ultima Thule's shape.

Ultima Thule is an unusual object found in the Kuiper Belt. The focal edge of the grouping was gone up against January 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) past Ultima Thule, and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission team members initially thought Ultima Thule resembles a snowman but now believe the object to be flattened.

Now, after receiving new images of MU69, planetary scientists suspect that both of its "lobes" are flattish, too.

Ultima Thule, the farthest object ever explored, has yet more mysteries to reveal. This is important, because this object, and others like it, are thought to be "pristine planetesimals" like those that served as building blocks for larger objects in the Solar System during its early days, 4.5 billion years ago.

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