Washington: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has beamed back new images of Ultima Thule, which show that the most distant world ever explored is much flatter than previously thought.
The images of the KBO — officially named 2014 MU69 — were captured by the New Horizons as it raced away at over 50,000 kilometres per hour on January 1. The images were taken nearly 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point.
“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth,” said mission principal investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute in the US. “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery,” said Stern.
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. The first close-up images of Ultima Thule — with it’s two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments — had observers calling it a “snowman.”
However, more analysis of approach images and these new departure images have changed that view, in part by revealing an outline of the portion of the KBO that was not illuminated by the Sun but could be “traced out” as it blocked the view to background stars.
Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or “lobes”) of Ultima Thule are not spherical. The larger lobe, nicknamed “Ultima,” more closely resembles a giant pancake and the smaller lobe, nicknamed “Thule,” is shaped like a dented walnut.