Ultima Thule’s peculiar shape is a puzzle for scientists

Ultima Thule, the farthest object ever explored, has yet more mysteries to reveal. Forget the debates about whether it is looks most like a snowman or more like Star Wars‘ BB-8 — NASA scientists have revealed that it is even more oddly shaped than previously thought.

A sequence of 14 images taken by New Horizons has been processed and strung together to show the shape and movement of this strange object. The central frame of the image was captured on January 1, 2019 during the New Year’s Day flyby:

It’s hard to see in the video, but scientists have been able to work out more about the object’s shape by looking at the way that it blocks out the stars behind it as it passes by. The researchers have found that the object does indeed have two lobes as thought, but neither lobe is spherical. The larger lobe, called Ultima, is more of a “pancake” shape, while the smaller lobe, Thule, is more like a “dented walnut.” However, there is still some degree of uncertainty over what the exact shape of the object is because parts of it were hidden from view and were not illuminated by the light from the Sun.

In the image below, you can see a comparison of the previous model of the object and the new updated model, with blue dashed lines representing areas of uncertainty where the object could be flatter than or more curved than the current image shows:

ultima thule new shape draftshapemodelgraphic 001 master 1
Scientists’ understanding of Ultima Thule has changed as they review additional data. The “old view” in this illustration is based on images taken within a day of New Horizons’ closest approach to the Kuiper Belt object on Jan. 1, 2019. The bottom view is the team’s current best shape model for Ultima Thule, but still carries some uncertainty as an entire region was essentially hidden from view, and not illuminated by the Sun, during the New Horizons flyby. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The new data raises new questions, however, such as how the object developed this peculiar shape. “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,” Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement. “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.”

Emerging Tech

Caltech sees supernovae, black holes ‘Ned Stark’ and ‘Jon Snow’ shredding stars

A new astronomical project has released its first set of results. It has observed more than one billion of the stars and has made a wealth of discoveries, from 50 small near-Earth asteroids to more than 1,100 supernovae.
Gaming

Feeling bored in real life? Pursue a new persona in the best open-world games

Open-world games are among the most popular in the medium. These are the best open-world games of all-time, including titles in series like Assassin's Creed, The Elder Scrolls, and The Legend of Zelda.
Computing

USB 3.1 is becoming increasingly common on all sorts of devices, but what is it?

USB can seem more complicated than it really is. Need a quick primer on USB 3.1 and its various flavors? This guide will teach you the difference between Gen 1, Gen 2, and Type-C, and help you make sense of this whole USB mess.
Emerging Tech

Curiosity says goodbye to the Vera Rubin Ridge with a 360 video

The Curiosity rover has been exploring the Vera Rubin Ridge on Mars for more than a year now, and it is time for the explorer to move on. But before it departs, Curiosity has captured a 360 video of its final drill site.
Emerging Tech

Photosynthesizing artificial leaf may be the air-cleaning tool we’ve dreamed of

Engineers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have invented an artificial leaf which could both clean up our air and provide a cost-effective type of fuel. Here's how it works.
Mobile

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.
Emerging Tech

Global Good wants to rid the world of deadly diseases with lasers and A.I.

Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates, aims to eradicate diseases that kill children in developing nations. It tackles difficult problems with high-tech prototypes.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-powered website creates freakishly lifelike faces of people who don’t exist

No, this isn't a picture of a missing person. It's a face generated by a new artificial intelligence on the website ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Here's how the impressive A.I. works.
Emerging Tech

China’s mind-controlled cyborg rats are proof we live in a cyberpunk dystopia

Neuroscience researchers from Zhejiang University, China, have created a method that allows humans to control the movements of rats using a technology called a brain-brain interface.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s MAVEN orbiter has a new job as a communication relay for Mars 2020

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter has been collecting atmospheric readings but now is taking on a new job as a data relay satellite for the Mars 2020 mission that launches next year.
Emerging Tech

Underground volcanoes could explain possible liquid water on Mars

Last year scientists discovered there could be liquid water on Mars. Now a research team argues that for there to be liquid water, there must be an underground source of heat -- and they believe underground volcanoes could be responsible.
Emerging Tech

The 10 most expensive drones that you (a civilian) can buy

OK, these drones may be a bit beyond your budget: Check out the most expensive drones in the world, from industrial giants to highest-end filming tools.
Emerging Tech

Of all the vape pens in the world, these 5 are the best

Vaping concentrates has become significantly more popular, especially among those that use cannabis for medicinal purposes. But don’t use just any vape pen: we found these five devices to be our favorites in 2018.
Computing

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.