Nasa's New Horizons: 'Space snowman' appears squashed

11 Février, 2019, 15:53 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

"The larger lobe, nicknamed 'Ultima, ' more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed 'Thule, ' is shaped like a dented walnut", the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (where the mission is headquartered) detailed online.

Scientists' understanding of Ultima Thule has changed as they review additional data. "We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun".

"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", mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, said, as reported by the Daily Mail.

"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 New Horizons co-investigator Simon Porter.

The old (top) and new (bottom) shape-model views of the distant object Ultima Thule, which NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by on January 1, 2019.

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.

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A new image sequence from the spacecraft's departing view of MU69 shows it isn't actually made up of spheroidal segments, as first thought - instead, its two lobes are flat like pancakes.

The bottom view is the team'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. Add the fact that the spacecraft used long exposure times to boost the camera's signal level, and you've got some heavy blurring going on. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. By watching which ones "blinked out" as Ultima passed in front of them, the scientists were able to outline the object's unusual shape. Other solar system objects similar to MU69 - like comets, for instance - have rounder, though still imperfect, forms.

Stringing 14 of these pictures into a short flight film, New Horizons researchers can affirm that the two areas (or "flaps") of Ultima Thule are not spherical.

The departure images were taken from a different angle than the approach photos and reveal complementary information on Ultima Thule's shape. The hope is that Ultima Thule's structure and composition can reveal new insights on how all planetary bodies came into being just over 4.6 billion years ago.

"This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world 4 billion miles away from Earth, "Stern said. This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system".

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