New Horizons' faraway target is 'pretty pancake-like,' scientists discover

Federico Mansilla
Febrero 11, 2019

Scientists from NASA's New Horizons mission released the first stitched together animation of Ultima Thule (TOO-lee), the most distant object ever explored by humans.

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

The images were taken specifically when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. It's preserved in a ring of ancient frozen objects, called the Kuiper Belt, that form a ring around the solar system. The image to the left is an "average" of ten images. The dashed blue lines represent uncertainty, indicating that Ultima Thule could be either flatter than, or not as flat as, depicted in this figure.

A new image sequence from the spacecraft's departing view of MU69 shows it isn't actually made up of spheroidal segments, as first thought - instead, its two lobes are flat like pancakes.

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.

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Based on the new images, the larger lobe (nicknamed Ultima) appears to more closely resemble a giant pancake.

"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", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. 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. "We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun".

The departure images were taken from a different angle than the approach photos and reveal complementary information on Ultima Thule's shape. Add the fact that the spacecraft used long exposure times to boost the camera's signal level, and you've got some heavy blurring going on. The shape is relatively unprecedented in scientific observations of the solar system.

Initial imagery taken during New Horizons' approach suggested that Ultima Thule is shaped like a bowling pin.

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".

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