Wednesday, 24 April, 2019

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

Ultima Thule Space Pancake NASA's New Horizons Shows New Snaps of Distant World Ultima Thule NASA. JHUAPL SwRI
Cary Marshall | 11 February, 2019, 22:41

Now, it can be confirmed that the two sections of Ultima Thule are not spherical like a snowman, but rather like a giant pancake connected to a smaller, dented walnut. That glowing crescent visible in the darkness was actually blurred in the individual frames due to the extended exposure time used to give the camera's signal level a boost during what was a really rapid scan.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft offers an evocative series of an image- a departing view of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) nicknamed Ultima Thule. Now New Horizons is bidding farewell to another long-distance neighbor, but not before throwing scientists new puzzles to munch on about the odd Ultima Thule.

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.

"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", principal investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima Thule. But more importantly, 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. 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. 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.

"While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show [the object] is much flatter than originally believed and much flatter than expected", said New Horizons project scientists Hal Weaver.

Until now, Ultima Thule was thought to be oddly snowman-like - built from two spherical rocks, where one is larger than the other. The photos were taken almost 10 minutes after the probe passed its closest point to the rock.

More news: Julian Edelman shaves massive playoff beard on 'Ellen'

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

New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule occurred some 6.5 billion km from Earth.

In 2015, New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto, which revealed that the dwarf planet is surprisingly diverse, Space.com reported.

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

The images that shocked New Horizons' scientists will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week. Ultima Thule's shape is definitely unique so far in the solar system and its origins could, in turn, refine or change theories about the origin of the solar system itself.

The primitive world was "born" this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the unusual shape, the team explains.

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