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On December 31st, 2018, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This came roughly two and a half years after New Horizons became the first mission in history to conduct a flyby of Pluto. This latest encounter led to some stunning images of the KBO as the spacecraft made it’s approach.
But of course, these were not the last images New Horizons was going to capture of this object. While making its flyby of Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day, the spacecraft took a number of images that revealed something very interesting about Ultima Thule’s shape. Rather than consisting of two spheres that are joined together, Ultima Thule is actually made up of two segments – one that looks like a pancake, the other a walnut.
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These images represent the final look that the New Horizons spacecraft had of Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) as it raced past the object on Jan. 1st, 2019. They were taken nearly ten minutes after New Horizons made its closest approach to the object while traveling at speeds of over 50,0000 km/h (31,000 mph).
As Alan Stern, the mission’s Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), said in a recent John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) press release:
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“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth. Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”
The newly-released images revealed important scientific information about Ultima Thule, particularly is its true shape. The first close-up images of Ultima Thule indicated that the object was composed of two spherical segments, which had people calling it a “snowman”. However, additional analysis of these images and the new departure images...
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