You might want to keep those 3D glasses you got at the movie theater (if you could smuggle them out without getting caught), because they actually have a use beyond seeing superheroes or aliens jump out at you.
Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), an object in the Kuiper belt, can now be viewed in 3D through stereo images created by NASA’s New Horizons team. While these images were created to help scientists study what has become one of this year’s most buzzed-about cosmic objects, gazing at the “snowman pancake” as if it’s floating right in front of you is almost as awesome as seeing it in space.
"These views provide a clearer picture of Ultima Thule's overall shape," explained mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, "including the flattened shape of the large lobe, as well as the shape of individual topographic features such as the "neck" connecting the two lobes, the large depression on the smaller lobe, and hills and valleys on the larger lobe."
You can magically see Ultima in 3D because what looks like one image is actually a mashup of processed images that New Horizons captured as it viewed the object at slightly different angles.
Remember Magic Eye? This might give you a flashback to the ‘90s, but try looking through the image and into the distance. You will start to see a third image in the middle — try keeping your focus on that.
No glasses required here either; you only need to cross your eyes until the two images merge. Placing your finger or a pen a few inches from your eyes and focusing on that could help until the combined image comes into focus. Just don’t do this one too often!
This is where those glasses you never thought you’d need again (make sure they’re the red-blue type) come in handy.
Just stare and be mesmerized.
The spacecraft used its Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take the shots below on New Year’s Day at 5:01 and 5:26 Universal Time, at distances of 17,400 miles and 4,100 miles, at scales of about 430 feet and 100 feet per pixel. By combining the images, the team created a “binocular” effect that allows us to see in three dimensions just as if our eyes were slightly separated.
The earlier image sequence was taken at a slightly different viewing direction and includes the highest-resolution images LORRI could capture. The later view was much closer, with four times higher resolution per pixel, but has lower image quality because of less exposure time. Put them together and you get a stereo view that beats any other the team could create.
"We have been looking forward to this high-quality stereo view since long before the flyby," said New Horizons deputy project scientist John Spencer, also from SwRI. "Now we can use this rich, three-dimensional view to help us understand how Ultima Thule came to have its extraordinary shape."
Hang on to those glasses in case NASA decides to 3D-ify with anything else.