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.
New Horizons performed its farthest flyby when it approached Ultima Thule within 2,200 miles (about 3,540 km) of the surface at a velocity of 31,500 miles (about 50,694 km) per hour on Jan. 1.
The latest images were taken nearly 10 minutes after New Horizons crossed its closest approach point, which were the final views New Horizons captured of Ultima Thule, said a NASA release on Friday.
Previously scientists called Ultima Thule “snowman” as the first close-up images revealed its two distinct and spherical segments. However, more analysis of approach images and new departure images have changed that view.
Stringing 14 of the latest images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists confirmed that the two sections, or “lobes,” of Ultima Thule are not spherical.
The larger lobe, nicknamed “Ultima,” more closely resembles a giant pancake, and the smaller lobe, nicknamed “Thule,” is shaped like a dented walnut, according to the mission team.
“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,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
“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,” he said.