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The image on the right was released during this morning’s first briefing outlining the successful confirmation of New Horizons’ fly-by of Ultima Thule (still on-going as I post this). It, along with other data, has provided an explanation for why the scientists have not detected a significant variation in brightness: Our view is looking down at the object’s poles
Images taken during the spacecraft’s approach — which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST — revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima’s mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn’t appear to vary as it rotated. The team has still not determined the rotation period.
They note that the highest resolution images will not arrive until February, though they do expect some good images by tomorrow.