The gif, released by NASA and tweeted by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which co-engineered the New Horizons spacecraft, shows the clockwise, “propeller-like” rotation of the Ultima Thule asteroid as it was photographed by the probe’s onboard Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) earlier this month.
In a press release, NASA explained that the New Horizons probe approached to within just 17,100 miles (28,000 km) of the asteroid, adding that the images were processed and sharpened to enhance detail.
“The rotation period of Ultima Thule is about 16 hours, so the movie covers a little under half a rotation,” NASA explained. Scientists will now ” use these images to help determine the three-dimensional shape of Ultima Thule, in order to better understand its nature and origin,” the release added.
The New Horizons space probe flew past the 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule asteroid, located at the edge of our solar system, some 6.5 billion km from the Sun, on 1 January. As its name indicates, the asteroid was first discovered by the Hubble orbital telescope in 2014. NASA dubbed it the “Ultima Thule”, meaning “The Edge of the World” in March 2018. Astronomers say the flyby will give scientists important clues on how planets, moons and other objects in the solar system are formed.
Social media users had fun with the new gif, making a variety of less than serious remarks about the asteroid’s shape, saying it reminded them of snowmen, potatoes, and even “space peanuts,” asking excitedly when new images could be expected.
NASA has said that it will take some 20 months for all the data on the distant asteroid, lovingly nicknamed the ‘space snowman’ by some astronomers, to be transmitted back to Earth.