NASA's faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

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1, 2019, file image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, encountered by the New Horizons spacecraft.

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.

While the first photos sent back to Earth revealed two touching spherical segments which gave the appearance of a snowman, subsequent images captured as Ultima Thule raced away at over 50,000km/ph have revealed a more flattened profile.

Mission scientists created this "departure movie" from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly after the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on January 1, 2019.

The larger lobe, as described by NASA, more closely resembles a giant pancake, while the smaller one is shaped like a dented walnut.

"It would be closer to reality to say MU69's shape is flatter, like a pancake", Stern added. By combining the approach images that had already been taken and looking at stars obscured by the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as New Horizons hurtled past, scientists have been able to trace an outline of 2014 MU69. "We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun".

The object's illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level, but the team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent. The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima Thule.

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"Enlarge / The "old" view of Ultima Thule is on top".

What initially looked like an upside-down two-ball anthropomorphic snow sculpture floating in space is actually a "contact binary": two stars whose components are so close they touch or merge. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

At 4 billion miles from Earth, MU69 (also nicknamed Ultima Thule) is the farthest-away object a human spacecraft has ever visited. But that impression changed shortly before closest approach, which occurred just after midnight on New Year's Day and brought the probe within 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of the mysterious body. Ultima Thule's shape is definitely unique so far in the solar system and its origins could, in turn, refine or change theories about the origin of the solar system itself.

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.

Fourteen newly released images show that the object is significantly flatter than previously thought, mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute said.

Scientists estimate Ultima Thule is about 19 miles long; its dual sections measuring 12 miles across ("Ultima") and nine miles across ("Thule").