NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently flew past the object dubbed Ultima Thule at a blistering speed, but not before snapping a few photos.
As the world rang in the beginning of 2019 on 1 January, researchers at NASA were keeping an eye on the New Horizons spacecraft for what would prove to be a defining moment in its multi-year mission. On that day, it had its close-up flyby of the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule, a chunk of space debris that had previously caught the eye of astronomers of Earth.
As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of amazing photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69. 14 of these photos have been stitched together to form an amazing GIF.
Creates more scientific puzzles
“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4bn miles away from Earth,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern. “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”
The images taken by New Horizons also revealed some important scientific information about the object some observers had dubbed the ‘snowman’ because of its appearance being similar to two spheres fused together. However, analysis of both the approach and departure images have changed this view because of the revealing of an outline, which was not seen before as it was not illuminated by the sun.
Now, it can be confirmed that the two sections of Ultima Thule are not spherical like a snowman, but rather like a giant pancake connected to a smaller, dented walnut. Stern added that the discovery of its true shape is “creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed”. He added: “We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the sun.”
To help bolster the calculation of the shape, the research team observed the background stars in the series of images and noted when they ‘blinked out’, giving an indication of what shapes the two lobes were.
Another member of the NASA team, Hal Weaver, said that with these new findings, the academic community will undoubtedly be motivated by new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system, with more images soon to be returned from New Horizons.