Pancakes in space? No that's just the mysterious MU69

New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

New Horizons - the legendary spacecraft that captured these images of MU69 - shot the latest sequence of pictures on January 1, 2019, as the spacecraft departed MU69 at 31,000 miles per hour and hurtled deeper into the black abyss of space, toward still-unknown destinations.

"The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images", said New Horizons co-investigator Simon Porter.

'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'. The encounter set a new record for the most distant ever visit to a Solar System object by a spacecraft.

New Horizons flew within 2,200 miles of MU69, travelling at a speed of 32,200 mph. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). The image to the left is an "average" of ten images. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows. From this first look, it appeared as though Ultima Thule, formally named 2014 MU69, consisted of two spheres in contact with one another-a contact binary.

New Horizons' first images confirmed some predictions and dispelled others, revealing MU69 to be a snowman-shaped world with a rusty red hue that spins end-over-end like a propeller.

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.

The larger lobe, nicknamed "Ultima", more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed "Thule", is shaped like a dented walnut, according to the mission team.

New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule occurred some 6.5 billion km from Earth. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed.

"We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun", Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, said in a press release.

The departure pictures were taken from an unexpected point in comparison to the methodology photographs and uncover integral data on Ultima Thule's shape. By noting which of these stars went dark as Ultima blocked them out, mission scientists were able to map out the object's (surprisingly flat) shape. 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.

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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