NASA researchers caught a new glimpse of Ultima Thule as one of their spacecraft flew past the distant object. Located four billion miles from Earth, scientists at NASA may have to re-evaluate not just the shape of the object itself but also their understanding of planets. The event was hailed as rare by Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission.
He said: “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.
“We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the Sun.”
New Horizons project scientist, Hal Weaver added: “This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system.”
Originally described as being like a snowman, the new images show it to be more like two pancakes.
It was called the snowman as Ultima Thule resembled two spheres sitting on top of each other but those have now been defunct due to the new images.
Mr Stern said: “We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view.
“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.”
Ultima Thule floats on the edge of our solar system in the Kuiper Belt and had originally thought to be an oval-shaped as it had not been lit by the Sun.
The images were captured by the New Horizons probe as it raced past following its New Years flyby.
New Horizons began its work on Ultima Thule after exploring Pluto and took the images just 10 minutes after it passed by the object.
Mr Stern added: “This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth.”