In early January, scientists first shared images of Ultima Thule with the public using data taken from the New Horizons spacecraft, and these images at first glance appeared to show an odd, snowman-shaped object, which seemed very much in keeping with the holiday spirit.
As Ars Technica report, Ultima Thule, also known as 2014 MU69, originally appeared to be formed of two spheres, making it a contact binary.
However, since scientists first perused the earliest data taken from New Horizons, they have now had more time to re-examine their earliest impressions of the Kuiper Belt object and have discovered that the larger lobe of it looks much more like a pancake now, while the smaller lobe resembles a walnut.
Since Ultima Thule is no longer the friendly Frosty the Snowman space object that scientists once believed it to be, their view of it has changed dramatically.
According to Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, part of their limited knowledge of the object initially had to do with the small number of images they had to work with in the beginning. Now, however, scientists are viewing Ultima Thule as more of a pancake object.
“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.”
— Ars Technica (@arstechnica) February 8, 2019
Now that scientists have suggested that Ultima Thule is formed of two completely different shapes, public interest has grown markedly as we have never seen such a distant Kuiper Belt object this close before.
Planetary scientists Alex Parker has suggested that the new shapes of Ultima Thule are really not very odd in the grand scheme of things, as the larger lobe is not dissimilar to what Saturn’s moons look like to us.
“The larger lobe looks to have a shape similar to some of the pancake moons of Saturn, like Atlas.”
However, scientists have also noted that Saturn’s moons were created very close to the enormous gas giant planet’s rings, instead of deep space, where Ultima Thule originated from.
These latest surprising images of Ultima Thule are really only the beginning of the data from New Horizons in a sense, as transmission is exceedingly slow across the ever-growing 44.4 astronomical units between Earth and New Horizons. With further data will come even more valuable information about Ultima Thule, which has been classed as a pristine planetesimal.