As NASA's New Horizons spacecraft zoomed out of twin space rocks known collectively as Ultima Thule earlier this year, the images sent back appeared to show a "space snowman" in all its glory. The pictures showed two round clumps of rock attached by a thick "belt" in a form known as a contact binary.
Pictures are not lying, but they cannot be a little misleading, even in the room. Now astronomers have been thrown to a loop when New Horizon's latest series of images of Ultima Thule reveal that the twin stones are not actually round. Yep, Ultima Thule is more of a robe than a snowman.
All the images of Ultima Thule that New Horizons sent back over the last few weeks seemed to show the rocks as spherical. The new perspective from the spacecraft's airplane captured it in a new and very different light:
Can you see it? The heavily lit edge with almost no tapering suggests that the rock is much flatter than the first time it appeared.
Using these new images, NASA and its partner institutions have come up with a rough idea of how the rocks are actually shaped, and this is far from what we first thought.
The blue outline indicates areas of the rocks that remain unknown and may vary from flat to slightly deeper.
"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 changed our point of view significantly," says lead researcher Alan Stern in a statement. "It would be closer to reality to say that Ultima Thule's shape is flatter as a pancake. But more importantly, the new images create scientific jigsaw puzzles of how such an object could even be formed. We have never seen anything like this circling the sun . "