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New Horizons beams back a new revelation about Ultima Thule

11 February 2019

The New Horizons mission from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed the shape of the most distant object ever explored, Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", to be flat rather than spherical, according to latest images the spacecraft sent back to Earth.

Though these are not last Ultima Thule images, as many more are to come- but these images are the final view of New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on January 1. There have been different assumptions about its appearance: the most recent, based on images taken within a day of the beginning of the new year, was that both parts - Ultima, the large lobe, and Thule, the smaller one, were almost ideal spheres, barely touching each other, which NASA described as being just like a giant space snowman. Ultima Thule is actually composed of two joined shapes, named "Ultima" and "Thule", that were first thought to be both spherical, earning the nickname "snowman". "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake".

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, said: "This is really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth".

They are less certain how the object came to be, which will remain the biggest puzzle they will try to solve in the coming days while waiting for more of New Horizon's last images to arrive. We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun'.

"Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery", said Stern.

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Scientists estimate Ultima Thule is about 19 miles long; its dual sections measuring 12 miles across ("Ultima") and nine miles across ("Thule"). Mission team members initially thought Ultima Thule resembles a snowman but now believe the object to be flattened. 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 new views were captured from a different angle than the snowman-suggesting photos, and they show Ultima Thule's outline against a number of background stars. Now, new images have raised even more questions about the mysterious object. 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. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".

Stars can be seen "blinking out" in the background of an animation created from several images stitched together as New Horizons flew by.

A sequence of 14 images taken by New Horizons has been processed and strung together to show the shape and movement of this unusual object.

New Horizons beams back a new revelation about Ultima Thule