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

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The object's illuminated crescent is blurred in the individual frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level - but the science team combined and processed the images to remove the blurring and sharpen the thin crescent.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft offers an evocative series of an image- a departing view of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) nicknamed Ultima Thule.

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 encounter set a new record for the most distant ever visit to a Solar System object by a spacecraft.

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", Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, said in a press release.

"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 Simon Porter, a New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, who leads the shape-modeling effort. Ultima more closely resembles a "pancake", and Thule a "dented walnut".

Ultima Thule doesn't look much like a snowman after all. They were also taken from a different angle than the previous approach photos, revealing the crucial information of Ultima Thule's actual shape. The photos were taken almost 10 minutes after the probe passed its closest point to the rock. The central frame of this sequence was taken on January 1 at 05:42:42 UT (12:42 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 5,494 miles (8,862 kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth.

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In order to deduce the object's shape, scientists watched the background stars on the images.

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

Stars can be seen "blinking out" in the background of an animation created from several images stitched together as New Horizons flew by.

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

Another member of the NASA team, Hal Weaver, said that with these new findings, the academic community will undoubtedly be motivated by new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system, with more images soon to be returned from New Horizons.

But it will take about 20 months for New Horizons to send all of the images it captured back to Earth, and scientists' understanding of the rock is changing as fresh perspectives get revealed. New data from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is posted here each Friday, for those interested in seeing the raw image files before processing.

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