NASA Ultima Thule pictures: New Horizons snaps breathtaking view of 'snowman asteroid'

Katie Ramirez
February 11, 2019

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft offers an evocative series of an image- a departing view of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) nicknamed Ultima Thule. Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said: "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system". 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. The new photos reveal a dramatically different object because they were taken from a different angle than the images that were downloaded first. Background stars, many of which are visible in the individual images, were a defining factor in bringing this image of Ultima Thule out of the dark.

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.

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. He added: "We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun". The new images, taken when New Horizons was almost 9,000km from Ultima Thule, will give Moore's team plenty to chew over. The two-lobed object, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is actually flatter on the backside than originally thought, according to scientists.

Raw (left) and processed (right) images of Ultima Thule as the New Horizons space craft sped away.

The bottom view is NASA'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. The images were taken almost 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 4 billion miles away from Earth", mission principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement.

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"Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery", said Stern.

As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of awesome photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69.

New Horizons still has much more data to send back to Earth, as its data connection over the 44.4 astronomical units (6.6 billion km) is pretty slow.

New Horizons is already 32 million miles (52 million kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule. Mission managers hope to target an even more distant celestial object in this so-called Kuiper Belt, on the frozen fringes of the solar system, if the spacecraft remains healthy.

The images that shocked New Horizons' scientists will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week.

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