New images of the distant Ultima Thule object have surprised scientists

The latest conceptions of the shape of MU69

The latest conceptions of the shape of MU69More

NASA's New Horizons probe mission has once again given boffins something exciting to think about.

Ultima Thule first seemed to be an amalgam of two vaguely spherical objects, but the new image is telling us that appearances can be deceiving, especially at 4.1 billion miles away.

It is about four billion miles from Earth and looks like a reddish snowman.

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.

But, it spins end-over-end like a propeller.

"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. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery".

New Horizons captured the last-look images on January 1 at 12:42 a.m. EST, when it was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond the Kuiper Belt object.

NASA scientists shared the 3D animation of the space rock's shape below, which was created using images that New Horizons captured as it left MU69 behind.

Now that scientists have downloaded more data from the distant spacecraft, however, our view of Ultima Thule has changed.

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

They are less certain how the object came to be, which will remain the biggest puzzle they will try to solve in the coming days while waiting for more of New Horizon's last images to arrive. We've never seen something like this orbiting the Sun.

These latest observations, which revealed the object in a new light, create more puzzles. Other solar system objects similar to MU69 - like comets, for instance - have rounder, though still imperfect, forms.

The primitive world was "born" this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the unusual shape, the team explains. The new photos reveal a dramatically different object because they were taken from a different angle than the images that were downloaded first.

Now, after receiving new images of MU69, planetary scientists suspect that both of its "lobes" are flattish, too. 'It's a snowman, if anything at all'.

The New Horizons mission from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed the shape of the most distant object ever explored, Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", to be flat rather than spherical, according to latest images the spacecraft sent back to Earth. The small, icy object is shown spinning end-over-end like a propeller.

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