The final photos that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft snapped of Ultima Thule during the probe's epic January 1 flyby reveal the distant object to be far flatter than scientists had thought, mission team members announced today (Feb. 8).
Project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, home to New Horizons flight control center, said the finding should spark new theories on how such primitive objects formed early in the solar system. But as more data were analyzed, including several highly evocative crescent images taken almost 10 minutes after closest approach, a "new view" of the object's shape emerged.
However, after images of the flying and spinning object were received, Ultima Thule has turned out to be different from the way it had been originally described at first glance.
"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", explains principal investigator Prof Alan Stern.
'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", he said.
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.
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New Horizons may have moved on from Ultima Thule, but it still has plenty of images stored in its robotic brain.
All of the images of Ultima Thule that New Horizons sent back over the past few weeks seemed to show the rocks as being spherical. The image to the left is an "average" of ten images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager; the crescent is blurred in the raw frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level. However, more investigation of methodology pictures and these new flight pictures have changed that see, partially by uncovering a diagram of the bit of the KBO that was not lit up by the Sun, yet could be "followed out" as it hindered the view to foundation stars.
"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth", Stern added.
'Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery'.
Scientists believe that out here in this remote frigid realm, objects like MU69 have been frozen in pristine condition since the onset of the solar system some 4 billion years ago. According to NASA, scientists were able to deduce its shape by "tracing" the part of these images that blocked out stars in the background on the side that wasn't clearly outlined by the Sun.
The discovery of MU69's considerably more svelte dimensions has scientists scratching their heads on how the shape of the thing fits in with current thinking on planetary formation. It first wowed Earth after a New Year's Day flyby that beamed back an image somewhat resembling a space snowman or BB-8.