Published: Mon, February 11, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Nasa's New Horizons: 'Space snowman' appears squashed

Nasa's New Horizons: 'Space snowman' appears squashed

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

New Horizons performed its farthest flyby when it approached Ultima Thule within 2,200 miles (about 3,540 km) of the surface at a velocity of 31,500 miles (about 50,694 km) 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.

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

Stringing 14 of the latest images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists confirmed that the two sections, or "lobes", of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

'It would be closer to reality to say Ultimate Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4bn miles away from Earth", said the mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern. By combining the approach images that had already been taken and looking at stars obscured by the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as New Horizons hurtled past, scientists have been able to trace an outline of 2014 MU69.

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"We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun", NASA said in a statement. 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. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

Instead of a snowman, Ultima Thule is better described as a dented walnut smashed with a pancake.

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of awesome photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69. The image to the left is an "average" of ten images. The shape is relatively unprecedented in scientific observations of the solar system. It first wowed Earth after a New Year's Day flyby that beamed back an image somewhat resembling a space snowman or BB-8.

Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said, "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 that Ultima and Thule are much flatters than originally believed, and much flatter than expected".

'Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form - both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy'. New data from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is posted here each Friday, for those interested in seeing the raw image files before processing.

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