There are new images of the most distant object we have ever visited and they are shocking NASA scientists. The space rock called 2014 MU69, and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is located 4 billion miles from Earth.
The pictures of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), seen as a surprise gift, were taken on New Year's Day by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.
An incredible image sequence
"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. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery."
The newly released images brought crucial data to the scientists who strung 14 of these images into a short departure movie. Once believed to be snowman shaped, the researchers were now able to determine that the two sections of the very distant object are not spherical.
Instead, the bigger lobe (called Ultima) is more of a flat circle like a pancake. Meanwhile, the smaller lobe (Thule) is shaped like a dented walnut, said the scientists.
"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."
Watching blinking stars
In order to deduce the object's shape, scientists watched the background stars on the images. By seeing when they blinked out they put together the important new information about the actual shape of Ultima Thule.
They then compared their findings to a model put together from previous pre-flyby images and telescope information.
"The shape model we have derived from all of the existing Ultima Thule imagery is remarkably consistent with what we have learned from the new crescent images," said Simon Porter, a New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, who leads the shape-modeling effort.
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. They were also taken from a different angle than the previous approach photos, revealing the crucial information of Ultima Thule's actual shape.
"While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected," added Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
"This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system."
The images that shocked New Horizons' scientists will be available on the New Horizons LORRI website this week.