NASA’s faraway space snowman has flat, not round, behind

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A sequence of 14 close-up images taken when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 km) past Ultima Thule has completely changed the way scientists think the rock is shaped.

Though these are not last Ultima Thule images, as many more are to come- but these images are the final view of New Horizons captured of the KBO (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced away at over 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour) on January 1.

"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.

By combining the perspectives offered by a handful of images, scientists confirmed Ultima Thule's two lobes aren't spherical. "But more importantly", said Stern, "the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed".

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New Horizons may have moved on from Ultima Thule, but it still has plenty of images stored in its robotic brain. "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake". Images taken 10 minutes after the approach highlighted a view of the object's crescent, giving scientists a better idea of its actual shape. "We've never seen anything like this orbiting the Sun".

This interpretation is evident from the data acquired by the Nasa spacecraft when it looked back at icy Ultima Thule as it zoomed past at 50,000km/h.

When viewed from the front, Ultima Thule still resembles a two-ball snowman. Ultima Thule isn't spherical.

It turns out 2014 MU69-the most distant entity ever explored-is less of a plump snowman, and more of a deflated Christmas lawn ornament. It's located about 1 billion miles past dwarf-planet Pluto, which New Horizons visited in 2015. But this image (shown above) isn't as complete a picture of the shape as we thought it was. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery". This is important, because this object, and others like it, are thought to be "pristine planetesimals" like those that served as building blocks for larger objects in the Solar System during its early days, 4.5 billion years ago.

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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.

Now, after receiving new images of MU69, planetary scientists suspect that both of its "lobes" are flattish, too.

The images also give an insight into the difficulties faced by the team in getting enough light into probe's cameras this far out. While the individual photos were actually blurred, the science team was able to process the images to sharpen the crescent.

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