Ultima Thule doesn’t seem much like a snowman in the end.
The final photos that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft snapped of Ultima Thule during the stunt epic Jan. 1 flyby reveal the distant thing to be much flatter than scientists had believed, assignment group members announced today (Feb. 8).
“We had a feeling of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of pictures returned in today across the flyby, however viewing more information has significantly changed our view,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. [New Horizons at Ultima Thule: Full Coverage]
“It’d be nearer to reality to say Ultima Thule’s shape is flatter, like a pancake,” Stern added. “But what’s more, the new images are producing scientific puzzles about how this item could even be formed. We have never seen something like this round the sun.”
The 720 million New Horizons mission started at January 2006 to carry out the initial flyby of Pluto. The research aced this encounter in July 2015, revealing the dwarf planet to be a spectacularly varied universe of amazingly varied and rocky landscapes.
New Horizons then set an protracted mission, which based on a close flyby of Ultima Thule, which will be formally called 2014 MU69. This thing is about 21 miles (34 km ) long and is located 1 billion kilometers (1.6 billion km) past Pluto’s orbit. (Ultima is currently 4.1 billion kilometers, or 6.6 billion kilometers, from Earth.)
Imagery taken during New Horizons’ system indicated that Ultima Thule is shaped just like a bowling pin. But that impression changed shortly before closest approach, that occurred just after midnight on New Year’s Day and also brought the probe within two weeks,200 kilometers (3,540 kilometers ) of their mysterious body. Photos snapped around that point indicated that Ultima Thule consists of two lobes, each of which seemed to be approximately spherical.
A snowman, with a clearly red hue.
However, the recently released images have compelled another rethink. New Horizons took the long-exposure photographs about 10 moments after closest approach; the fundamental framework in the order was snapped out of a space of 5,494 miles (8,862 km), assignment team members stated.
The perspectives were recorded from another angle than the snowman-suggesting photographs, and they show the outline against numerous background stars of Ultima Thule. By noting which of these stars went dark since Ultima blocked out them, mission scientists could map out the object’s (amazingly flat) contour.
“This really is an extraordinary picture series, shot by a spacecraft researching a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth,” Stern said. “Nothing quite like this has been recorded in imagery.”
While the images are they are far from the pieces of information we’ll see in the probe\. It’s going take a total of approximately 20 weeks for New Horizons to send all its flyby imagery and measurements, mission staff members have stated.
And Ultima Thule might not be the final flyby goal of the spacecraft. New Horizons is in great health and has enough fuel to zoom by another remote body, if NASA grants another assignment extension, Stern has said. (The current extended assignment runs through 2021.)
Mike Wall’s book concerning the hunt for alien life,”Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; exemplified by Karl Tate), is available now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally printed on Space.com.