NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft’s next target might have another object orbiting it. The spacecraft will arrive at its destination in 2019.
The New Horizons probe got famous for its flyby of Pluto in 2015. That mission helped astronomers get a better idea of the dwarf planet, thus, allowing them to take a closer look at the far reaches of our solar system.
However, the spacecraft continued on through the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy objects beyond Neptune. So, the team immediately obtained permission to embark on an extended mission, with MU69 as its selected target.
So, next target of New Horizons is an icy object and may have at least one moon and a swarm of natural satellites.
“This might be the harbinger,” Stern said during a news conference at the AGU meeting. “It might hint that there is actually a swarm of satellites from MU69.”
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and his colleagues chased 2014 MU69 as it passed in front of three background stars. Hence, the results suggest that the distant object has at least one moon.
According to the new observations, when the craft speeds by its target during New Year’s Eve in 2019, New Horizons will capture high-resolution pictures. Thus, collecting data on both the planet and its moon.
“Besides being the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, this flyby is also going to the most primitive and pristine object ever explored,” said Stern according to BBC News. “We’ve really never been to anything like this. Of course, we’ve had lots of missions to comets that come from the Kuiper Belt, but they’ve come down into the inner Solar System where they’re processed, sometimes through hundreds of passages by the Sun, and they’re much smaller”.
So, researchers hope to learn more about the Kuiper Belt.
However, the flyby campaign will begin in August. First images from the Kuiper belt should come back to Earth a couple of days after New Horizons closest flyby.
Thumbnail image: Artist’s impression of 2014 MU69. Credit: NASA