The sequence of images was taken almost 10 minutes after the spacecraft's closest point of approach with the distant world (four billion miles away from our planet), and are just the latest in a trove of images New Horizons will send back to Earth.
"While the very nature of a fast flyby in some ways limits how well we can determine the true shape of Ultima Thule, the new results clearly show that Ultima and Thule are much flatter than originally believed, and much flatter than expected", said New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver. Ultima Thule is actually composed of two joined shapes, named "Ultima" and "Thule", that were first thought to be both spherical, earning the nickname "snowman".
Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or "lobes") of Ultima Thule are not spherical.
After analyzing these new images, scientists say the larger lobe more closely resembles a large pancake, and the smaller lobe looks a bit like a walnut.
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, said: "This is really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth".
Ultima Thule doesn't look much like a snowman after all.
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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", he said. "Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery". The bottom view is the team's current best shape model for Ultima Thule.
Ultima Thule, or more specifically Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69, is a so-called trans-Neptunian binary rock in the Kuiper Belt, a field of asteroids in the outer reaches of the solar system. The image to the left is an "average" of ten images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager; the crescent is blurred in the raw frames because a relatively long exposure time was used during this rapid scan to boost the camera's signal level.
As New Horizons drifted through space at a speed of approximately 50,000kph, it was able to snap a number of incredible photos of the object officially known as 2014 MU69.
In 2015, New Horizons successfully flew past Pluto, which revealed that the dwarf planet is surprisingly diverse, Space.com reported. "This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early Solar System".
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.
The primitive world was "born" this way, and did not evolve or deform through external processes to take on the odd shape, the team explains.