NASA’s New Horizons mission gave us quite the New Year’s treat last month when it revealed that 2014 MU69 was basically a giant snowman floating around the outskirts of the solar system. Comprised of two large spheres stuck together, the double-lobed object 4.1 billion miles away was stranger than we ever anticipated.
Well, hang on to your butts, because things are about to get even stranger: new data processed by the New Horizons team shows us that MU69 is actually flat. Instead of two spherical blobs, it’s really more like two flattened rocks that came together at one point and got stuck, like pancakes cooked side by side on a pan meeting at a neck where the batter merged.
“This really is an incredible image sequence, taken by a spacecraft exploring a small world four billion miles away from Earth,” said the Southwest Research Institute’s Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, in a press release. “Nothing quite like this has ever been captured in imagery.”
MU69 is the most distant world a human spacecraft has ever encountered and studied in detail, and its mysteries continue to excite the scientific community. Over this past New Year’s, the New Horizons spacecraft zipped past the rock at more than 31,000 miles per hour, getting as close as 2,200 miles away from the 21-mile-long object.
Previous images released by NASA confirmed the double-lobe shape of MU69, but higher-resolution photographs showed the reddish object was much more globular than predicted. The new images, taken in the wee morning hours of January 1 from about 5,494 miles from MU69, help reveal that on its side, the rock retains a thin, crescent-like shape. While the larger lobe is flatter, the smaller lobe is a bit more spherical, like a large nut.
The new analysis is incredible, but it undoubtedly raises more questions as to how these objects first formed in the Kuiper Belt, and how they eventually came together. The New Horizons team believes the two lobes met softly long ago (like a car bumper-kissing another car, rather than a furious collision), and a singular neck eventually formed to solidify the merging of the two bodies. But the shape of the two lobes is quite unusual and will require more time to understand.
Earth may not be flat, but as it turns out, you can’t say the same for all other worlds in the solar system.