NASA’S New Hori­zons space­craft un­veils unique shape of Ul­tima Thule

Millennium Post - - Mp World -

WASHINGTON DC: NASA’S New Hori­zons space­craft has beamed back new im­ages of Ul­tima Thule, which show that the most dis­tant world ever ex­plored is much flat­ter than pre­vi­ously thought.

The im­ages of the KBO -of­fi­cially named 2014 MU69 -- were cap­tured by the New Hori­zons as it raced away at over 50,000 kilo­me­ters per hour on Jan­uary 1.

The im­ages were taken nearly 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 four bil­lion miles away from Earth,” said mis­sion prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Alan Stern, of South­west Re­search In­sti­tute in the US.

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

The newly re­leased im­ages also con­tain im­por­tant sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion about the shape of Ul­tima Thule, which is turn­ing out to be one of the ma­jor dis­cov­er­ies from the flyby.

The first close-up im­ages of Ul­tima Thule -- with its two dis­tinct and, ap­par­ently, spher­i­cal seg­ments -- had ob­servers call­ing it a “snow­man.”

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.

String­ing 14 of these im­ages into a short de­par­ture movie, New Hori­zons sci­en­tists can con­firm that the two sec­tions (or “lobes”) of Ul­tima Thule are not spher­i­cal.

The larger lobe, nick­named “Ul­tima,” more closely re­sem­bles a gi­ant pancake and the smaller lobe, nick­named “Thule,” is shaped like a dented wal­nut.

“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,” Stern said.

“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,” he said.

The de­par­ture im­ages were taken from a dif­fer­ent an­gle than the ap­proach pho­tos and re­veal com­ple­men­tary in­for­ma­tion on Ul­tima Thule’s shape.

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.

Many back­ground stars are also seen in the in­di­vid­ual im­ages; watch­ing which stars “blinked out” as the ob­ject passed in front them al­lowed sci­en­tists to out­line the shape of both lobes, which could then be com­pared to a model as­sem­bled from analysing pre-flyby im­ages and ground-based tele­scope ob­ser­va­tions.

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