Recent discoveries had given a surprising new perspective to 2014 MU69, which has been the most distant object ever explored by NASA. Ultima Thule, in the Kuiper Belt, seems to be a lot less round than originally thought.
According to footage captured by a January 1 New Horizons flyby, Ultima Thule is more of a deflated beach ball than an air-filled one. The photo above shows Ultima Thule with a crescent shape in an image shared ten minutes after the capsule crossed paths with the entity.
Ultima Thule is a tiny world that is over 4 billion miles from planet earth. Southwest Research Institute’s Principal investigator Alan Stern confirmed, “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”
The pictures shared a surprising piece of scientific evidence: Ultima Thule’s segments aren’t round, as expected. NASA describes the largest of the lobes as pancake shaped and the smallest lobe carries more of a dented walnut shape.
Prior to this clear image, everything science understood about Ultima Thule was based on a very limited mount of photos transmitted during a flyby, but nothing as informative as this one. Stern has admitted that they have had to rethink what they understood about Ultima Thule and compare it to a pancake rather than a basketball.
While the bottom image in this picture most closely represents NASA’s current understanding of Ultima Thule’s shape, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty because the images transmitted didn’t include areas of the entity that were hidden from view and not lit by the sun. Scientists speculate that Ultima Thule could be shaped more like the dotted blue line depictions, flatter than expected or not as flat as the pictures indicate.
Stern explains, “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.”
The images taken by New Horizons on departure revealed the object from a different angle than scientists had previously studied. Fast flybys aren’t entirely an accurate way of understanding the actual shape of Ultima Thule, but the latest images have given scientists a greater, more accurate view that opens new possibilities regarding the formation of planets in the solar system.
Originally, scientists had theorized that Ultima Thule was single entity with two separate lobes. Now, they understand that it is actually two separate stars who are so close together that they are touching, perhaps even merging, called a “contact binary.”
Ultima measures approximately 12 miles across, while Thule measures around nine miles across. It is theorized that the two celestial bodies merged during the solar system’s formation at a speed and force only as comparable as two vehicles in a fender bender.