New images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows the departing view of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object that was the target of the Jan.1 flyby. The images show that Ultima Thule is, in fact, flatter in shape rather than spherical.
Flat Ultima Thule
The latest images of Ultima Thule shows the KBO as it was racing away at 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour), about 10 minutes after New Horizons made its closest approach. Amazingly, the images were not just incredible views of Ultima Thule, but they also contained significant scientific information.
Compared to the first close-up images of Ultima Thule, which appeared to show two spherical shaped objects, analysis of the new images revealed that the two sections of the KBO are not actually spherical, but more of flat in shape. Specifically, the larger lobe called Ultima is described as rather like a pancake, while the smaller lobe called Thule looks like a dented walnut.
The images were taken when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) away from Ultima Thule and 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) away from the Earth. While the individual photos were actually blurred, the science team was able to process the images to sharpen the crescent.
Because they were taken from a different angle than the approach photos, the team was able to gather complementary information on the actual shape of the object. Furthermore, some of the stars in the individual photos “blinked out” as Ultima Thule was passing by, and comparing those images to models and telescope observations, the team was able to get an outline of the object’s shape.
“It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake. 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,” said Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute, the mission’s Principal Investigator.