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NASA farewell view of Ultima Thule shows a 'giant pancake'

New Horizons' last look at the Kuiper Belt object deflates its earlier snowman appearance.

New Horizons caught these crescent views of Ultima Thule as it was flying away from the oddball object.
NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/National Optical Astronomy Observatory

NASA must be hungry. The space agency shared the New Horizons spacecraft's goodbye glance at weird Ultima Thule and decided it looked like a "giant pancake" attached to a "dented walnut."

Ultima Thule is an unusual object found in the Kuiper Belt. It's located about 1 billion miles past dwarf-planet Pluto, which New Horizons visited in 2015. The pancake and nut comparison is a departure from earlier images that showed the two-lobed object looking more like a snowman.

NASA released a graphic showing how our understanding has changed thanks to additional data from New Horizons. 

This illustration shows NASA's old and new views of Ultima Thule.

NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The rounded snowman images came within a day of New Horizons' closest approach on Jan. 1. Images taken 10 minutes after the approach highlighted a view of the object's crescent, giving scientists a better idea of its actual shape. 

The blue dashes in the illustration show NASA's fudge factor. Ultime Thule may fill out those lines, or it may be closer to the flatter shape shown. 

"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," said principal investigator Alan Stern.

NASA also offered up a short departure movie showing New Horizons' view as it zipped by. The movie is compiled from 14 different images of Ultima Thule.

New Horizons launched in 2006 and has since traveled billions of miles through space, with notable visits to Pluto and now Ultima Thule. 

The spacecraft is healthy and its handlers may look into sending it toward another interesting target. We'll just have to wait and see what it finds out there so far from home.

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