New Horizons mission invites public to celebrate New Year’s KBO flyby
Approximately the size of a baby grand piano, the spacecraft is scheduled to make its closest approach to the mysterious MU69 at 12:33 a.m. EST (05:33 GMT) next New Year’s Day.
If everything goes as planned, it will come about three times closer to the KBO than it did to Pluto in July of 2015. From a distance of just 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers), the probe’s cameras should be able to capture surface details approximately the size of a basketball court.
“Combining images with the measurements we make of the composition and environment around MU69 should teach us a great deal about objects like MU69 that built dwarf planets like Pluto,” said Project Scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland.
At four billion miles from Earth – and one billion miles beyond Pluto – MU69 is on target to be the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft from Earth.
“Our flyby of MU69 on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2019 will be an exciting sequel to the historic exploration New Horizons performed at Pluto in 2015. Nothing even like MU69 has ever been explored before,” said mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
Much smaller than Pluto, MU69 has an irregular shape with an estimated diameter of some 18.7 miles (30 kilometers). In contrast, Pluto, which is spherical, has a diameter of 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers).
Little is known about MU69, which was found with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in 2014 and selected as a second target for New Horizons.
Information gleaned from the KBO’s occultations of three separate stars in the summer of 2017 suggests it could be a binary system composed of two objects, a single object with two lobes, or even a swarm of objects.
Data from the second occultation, which was observed using NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) indicates the KBO may have a small moon. MU69 is known to be composed of pristine materials that may have remained unchanged since the formation of the solar system.
Marc Buie of SwRI, the New Horizons science team member who led the occultation studies, said he expects MU69 to have many surprises in store.
The spacecraft is also conducting distant observations of about 24 other Kuiper Belt Objects, including a few dwarf planets. It is also measuring levels of plasma, dust, and gas in the Kuiper Belt.
“This post-Pluto mission is a complete and comprehensive exploration of the Kuiper Belt,” said mission operations manager Alice Bowman, also of JHUAPL. “The spacecraft is collecting data out there throughout each year while the mission team works together to plan and shape the MU69 flyby.”
Much of these plans will be made while New Horizons is in hibernation, where it it is scheduled to remain until June 4. In August, the actual encounter phase is slated to begin, starting with the first long distance observations of MU69 by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
A briefing on next year’s flyby presented at the American Geophysical Union‘s (AGU) fall meeting, is available for public viewing, as is a presentation on the latest findings about Pluto and Charon and a look ahead to next year’s flyby, also presented at the AGU fall meeting.
“The Voyagers and Pioneers flew through the Kuiper Belt at a time when we didn’t know this region existed,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division in Washington, D.C. “New Horizons is on the hunt to understand these objects, and we invite everyone to ring in the next year with the excitement of exploring the unknown.”
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.