Ever since it brought back images of everyone's favourite is-a-planet-isn't-a-planet Pluto, the NASA probe New Horizons has been a newsmaker here at OWLconnected. The last time we heard from it was on New Year's Day when it was relaying back information about a very distant celestial body called 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule.
Its nickname may mean "beyond the known world", but thanks to new analysis, this asteroid is becoming a bit more knowable.
Bowling has been cancelled
When the first images of Ultima Thule arrived, they were very blurry. The best guess of scientists was that the asteroid looked a lot like a bowling pin—a fat, elongated base with a rounded top. But at the time, they cautioned that more data would be arriving over the next few weeks that would confirm its true shape.
Well, that new view is in and it appears that MU69 is not a bowling pin after all. Have a look...
Whoa there, hold on! What did we just see? It's true—that was a bit quick! (In fact, it was an animation made by piecing together 14 images taken by New Horizons as it flew past the asteroid.)
We also have a much slower computer simulation below of the important bits. Observe!
From pin to pancake
New data has shown both Ultima Thule's true shape, as well as why it was easy for scientists to have made their initial mistake.
From one angle, it does still look like a bowling pin (or a snowman, if you prefer). But once rotated, the asteroid is actually a pair of gravitationally locked pieces. One is a like a walnut or dried out marshmallow—the other is a pancake or a cookie. (Why are we so hungry right now??)
So mystery solved, right? Hardly! NASA says that it will likely take 20 months to completely go through all of the data received about Ultima Thule. This will hopefully unpack things like its precise measurements, rotation, and its composition, a.k.a. what it's made of. This last one is extra important! Objects like this are thought to be leftovers from the very beginning of our solar system. Looking forward to the new updates, NASA!
While we wait, we're going to the kitchen to make some walnut marshmallow pancakes. Pass the space syrup!