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Nasa scientists shocked by shape of strange object in solar system

New images of the most distant object ever explored have shocked the Nasa researchers who saw them.

The bizarre shape of Ultima Thule – which was once described as being like a snowman, but has been confirmed to be more like two pancakes – could prompt scientists to reconsider our understanding of how planets form, scientists say.

“Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery,” said Alan Stern, the principle investigator on the New Horizons mission that explored Ultima Thule. “We’ve never seen something like this orbiting the Sun.”

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The new images offer a different perspective on the object, which is floating in the Kuiper Belt on the edge of our solar system. As such, they show that the round object isn’t so round at all – when looked at from another view, it is almost flat, which scientists did not expect.

After the first images, scientists nicknamed Ultima Thule the snowman, because it seemed to resembles two spheres stacked on top of each other.

leftCreated with Sketch.
rightCreated with Sketch.

1/30 Earth from the ISS

From the International Space Station, Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Terry W. Virts took this photograph of the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Gulf Coast at sunset

Nasa

2/30 Frosty slopes of Mars

This image of an area on the surface of Mars, approximately 1.5 by 3 kilometers in size, shows frosted gullies on a south-facing slope within a crater. The image was taken by Nasa’s HiRISE camera, which is mounted on its Mars Reconaissance Orbiter

Nasa

3/30 Orion Capsule splashes down

The Orion capsule jetted off into space before heading back a few hours later — having proved that it can be used, one day, to carry humans to Mars

Nasa

4/30 The Soyuz TMA-15M rocket launch

The Soyuz TMA-15M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, carrying three new astronauts to the International Space Station. It also took caviar, ready for the satellite’s inhabitants to celebrate the holidays

Nasa

5/30 Yellowstone from space

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman shared this image of Yellowstone via his twitter account

Nasa

6/30 Black Hole Friday

Nasa celebrated Black Friday by looking into space instead — sharing pictures of black holes

Nasa

7/30 NuSTAR

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Nasa

8/30 Saturn

This near-infrared color image shows a specular reflection, or sunglint, off of a hydrocarbon lake named Kivu Lacus on Saturn’s moon Titan

Nasa

9/30 Worlds Apart

Although Mimas and Pandora, shown here, both orbit Saturn, they are very different moons. Pandora, “small” by moon standards (50 miles or 81 kilometers across) is elongated and irregular in shape. Mimas (246 miles or 396 kilometers across), a “medium-sized” moon, formed into a sphere due to self-gravity imposed by its higher mass

Nasa

10/30 Solar Flare

An X1.6 class solar flare flashes in the middle of the sun in this image taken 10 September, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

Nasa

11/30 Solar Flare

An image from Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) shows a 200,000 mile long solar filament ripping through the Sun’s corona in September 2013

Nasa

12/30 Cassiopeia A c

A false colour image of Cassiopeia A comprised with data from the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes and the Chandra X-Ray observatory

Nasa

13/30 Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy

An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy seen in infrared light by the Herschel Space Observatory. Regions of space such as this are where new stars are born from a mixture of elements and cosmic dust

Nasa

14/30 Mars Rover Spirit

Nasa’s Mars Rover Spirit took the first picture from Spirit since problems with communications began a week earlier. The image shows the robotic arm extended to the rock called Adirondack

Nasa

15/30 Morning Aurora From the Space Station

Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly captured this photograph of the green lights of the aurora from the International Space Station

16/30 Launch of History – Making STS-41G Mission in 1984

The Space Shuttle Challenger launches from Florida at dawn. On this mission, Kathryn Sullivan became the first U.S. woman to perform a spacewalk and Marc Garneau became the first Canadian in space. The crew of seven was the largest to fly on a spacecraft at that time, and STS-41G was the first flight to include two female astronauts

17/30 A Fresh Perspective on an Extraordinary Cluster of Galaxies

Galaxy clusters are often described by superlatives. After all, they are huge conglomerations of galaxies, hot gas, and dark matter and represent the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity

18/30 Veil Nebula Supernova Remnant

Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope has unveiled in stunning detail a small section of the Veil Nebula – expanding remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago

19/30 Hubble Sees a Galactic Sunflower

The arrangement of the spiral arms in the galaxy Messier 63, seen here in an image from the Nasa Hubble Space Telescope, recall the pattern at the center of a sunflower

20/30 A Hubble Cosmic Couple

The spectacular cosmic pairing of the star Hen 2-427 — more commonly known as WR 124 — and the nebula M1-67 which surrounds it

21/30 Pluto image

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with colour data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced colour global view of Pluto

22/30 Fresh Crater Near Sirenum Fossae Region of Mars

The HiRISE camera aboard Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this closeup image of a “fresh” (on a geological scale, though quite old on a human scale) impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars. This impact crater appears relatively recent as it has a sharp rim and well-preserved ejecta

23/30 Earth Observations From Gemini IV in 1965

This photograph of the Florida Straits and Grand Bahama Bank was taken during the Gemini IV mission during orbit no. 19 in 1965. The Gemini IV crew conducted scientific experiments, including photography of Earth’s weather and terrain, for the remainder of their four-day mission following Ed White’s historic spacewalk on June 3

24/30 Nasa Celebrates 50 Years of Spacewalking

For 50 years, NASA has been “suiting up” for spacewalking. In this 1984 photograph of the first untethered spacewalk, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless is in the midst of the first “field” tryout of a nitrogen-propelled backpack device called the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU)

25/30 Hubble Peers into the Most Crowded Place in the Milky Way

This Nasa Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way

26/30 An Astronaut’s View from Space

Nasa astronaut Reid Wiseman tweeted this photo from the International Space Station on 2 September 2014

27/30 Giant Landform on Mars

On Mars, we can observe four classes of sandy landforms formed by the wind, or aeolian bedforms: ripples, transverse aeolian ridges, dunes, and what are called “draa”

28/30 Expedition 39 Landing

A sokol suit helmet can be seen against the window of the Soyuz TMA-11M capsule shortly after the spacecraft landed with Expedition 39 Commander Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan

29/30 Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Viewed by Voyager I

30/30 Chandra Observatory Sees a Heart in the Darkness

1/30 Earth from the ISS

From the International Space Station, Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Terry W. Virts took this photograph of the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Gulf Coast at sunset

Nasa

2/30 Frosty slopes of Mars

This image of an area on the surface of Mars, approximately 1.5 by 3 kilometers in size, shows frosted gullies on a south-facing slope within a crater. The image was taken by Nasa’s HiRISE camera, which is mounted on its Mars Reconaissance Orbiter

Nasa

3/30 Orion Capsule splashes down

The Orion capsule jetted off into space before heading back a few hours later — having proved that it can be used, one day, to carry humans to Mars

Nasa

4/30 The Soyuz TMA-15M rocket launch

The Soyuz TMA-15M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, carrying three new astronauts to the International Space Station. It also took caviar, ready for the satellite’s inhabitants to celebrate the holidays

Nasa

5/30 Yellowstone from space

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman shared this image of Yellowstone via his twitter account

Nasa

6/30 Black Hole Friday

Nasa celebrated Black Friday by looking into space instead — sharing pictures of black holes

Nasa

7/30 NuSTAR

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Nasa

8/30 Saturn

This near-infrared color image shows a specular reflection, or sunglint, off of a hydrocarbon lake named Kivu Lacus on Saturn’s moon Titan

Nasa

9/30 Worlds Apart

Although Mimas and Pandora, shown here, both orbit Saturn, they are very different moons. Pandora, “small” by moon standards (50 miles or 81 kilometers across) is elongated and irregular in shape. Mimas (246 miles or 396 kilometers across), a “medium-sized” moon, formed into a sphere due to self-gravity imposed by its higher mass

Nasa

10/30 Solar Flare

An X1.6 class solar flare flashes in the middle of the sun in this image taken 10 September, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

Nasa

11/30 Solar Flare

An image from Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) shows a 200,000 mile long solar filament ripping through the Sun’s corona in September 2013

Nasa

12/30 Cassiopeia A c

A false colour image of Cassiopeia A comprised with data from the Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes and the Chandra X-Ray observatory

Nasa

13/30 Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy

An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy seen in infrared light by the Herschel Space Observatory. Regions of space such as this are where new stars are born from a mixture of elements and cosmic dust

Nasa

14/30 Mars Rover Spirit

Nasa’s Mars Rover Spirit took the first picture from Spirit since problems with communications began a week earlier. The image shows the robotic arm extended to the rock called Adirondack

Nasa

15/30 Morning Aurora From the Space Station

Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly captured this photograph of the green lights of the aurora from the International Space Station

16/30 Launch of History – Making STS-41G Mission in 1984

The Space Shuttle Challenger launches from Florida at dawn. On this mission, Kathryn Sullivan became the first U.S. woman to perform a spacewalk and Marc Garneau became the first Canadian in space. The crew of seven was the largest to fly on a spacecraft at that time, and STS-41G was the first flight to include two female astronauts

17/30 A Fresh Perspective on an Extraordinary Cluster of Galaxies

Galaxy clusters are often described by superlatives. After all, they are huge conglomerations of galaxies, hot gas, and dark matter and represent the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity

18/30 Veil Nebula Supernova Remnant

Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope has unveiled in stunning detail a small section of the Veil Nebula – expanding remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago

19/30 Hubble Sees a Galactic Sunflower

The arrangement of the spiral arms in the galaxy Messier 63, seen here in an image from the Nasa Hubble Space Telescope, recall the pattern at the center of a sunflower

20/30 A Hubble Cosmic Couple

The spectacular cosmic pairing of the star Hen 2-427 — more commonly known as WR 124 — and the nebula M1-67 which surrounds it

21/30 Pluto image

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with colour data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced colour global view of Pluto

22/30 Fresh Crater Near Sirenum Fossae Region of Mars

The HiRISE camera aboard Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this closeup image of a “fresh” (on a geological scale, though quite old on a human scale) impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars. This impact crater appears relatively recent as it has a sharp rim and well-preserved ejecta

23/30 Earth Observations From Gemini IV in 1965

This photograph of the Florida Straits and Grand Bahama Bank was taken during the Gemini IV mission during orbit no. 19 in 1965. The Gemini IV crew conducted scientific experiments, including photography of Earth’s weather and terrain, for the remainder of their four-day mission following Ed White’s historic spacewalk on June 3

24/30 Nasa Celebrates 50 Years of Spacewalking

For 50 years, NASA has been “suiting up” for spacewalking. In this 1984 photograph of the first untethered spacewalk, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless is in the midst of the first “field” tryout of a nitrogen-propelled backpack device called the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU)

25/30 Hubble Peers into the Most Crowded Place in the Milky Way

This Nasa Hubble Space Telescope image presents the Arches Cluster, the densest known star cluster in the Milky Way

26/30 An Astronaut’s View from Space

Nasa astronaut Reid Wiseman tweeted this photo from the International Space Station on 2 September 2014

27/30 Giant Landform on Mars

On Mars, we can observe four classes of sandy landforms formed by the wind, or aeolian bedforms: ripples, transverse aeolian ridges, dunes, and what are called “draa”

28/30 Expedition 39 Landing

A sokol suit helmet can be seen against the window of the Soyuz TMA-11M capsule shortly after the spacecraft landed with Expedition 39 Commander Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Flight Engineer Rick Mastracchio of NASA near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan

29/30 Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Viewed by Voyager I

30/30 Chandra Observatory Sees a Heart in the Darkness

But the new analysis and images change that understanding. In part, that is because they have revealed the outline of part of the object that was initially not visible because it was not lit by the Sun – but could be seen by tracing out the background stars that it had blocked out.

Instead of being a snowman, the two sections are not spherical at all. The bigger part is like a giant pancake and the smaller one is like a dented walnut, the scientists say.

“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,” Stern said. “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.”

The images aren’t the last to be captured or sent by New Horizons, which began its work on Ultima Thule after exploring Pluto. But they are the last views thatit captured as it raced away after its New Years flyby, travelling past at 31,000 miles per hour.

The images were snapped just 10 minutes after New Horizons passed by its closest approach to the distant object.

“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth,” said Stern. “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”

Much of the scientific data being collected is being used to understand how small planets might have formed in the early solar system. But the shocking and strange shape of Ultima Thule could change that understanding fundamentally, scientists say.

“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,” added Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “This will undoubtedly motivate new theories of planetesimal formation in the early solar system.”

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