New Horizons’ Next Target Just Got a Lot More Interesting

One artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons mission. This binary concept is based on telescope observations made at Patagonia, Argentina on July 17, 2017 when MU69 passed in front of a star. New Horizons theorize that it could be a single body with a large chunk taken out of it, or two bodies that are close together or even touching. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker)

LAUREL, Md. (NASA PR) — Could the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft actually be two targets?

New Horizons scientists look to answer that question as they sort through new data gathered on the distant Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69, which the spacecraft will fly past on Jan. 1, 2019. That flyby will be the most distant in the history of space exploration, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

The ancient KBO, which is more than four billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, passed in front of a star on July 17, 2017. A handful of telescopes deployed by the New Horizons team in a remote part of Patagonia, Argentina were in the right place at the right time to catch its fleeting shadow — an event known as an occultation – and were able to capture important data to help mission flyby planners better determine the spacecraft trajectory and understand the size, shape, orbit and environment around MU69.

Based on these new occultation observations, team members say MU69 may not be not a lone spherical object, but suspect it could be an “extreme prolate spheroid” – think of a skinny football – or even a binary pair. The odd shape has scientists thinking two bodies may be orbiting very close together or even touching – what’s known as a close or contact binary – or perhaps they’re observing a single body with a large chunk taken out of it. The size of MU69 or its components also can be determined from these data. It appears to be no more than 20 miles (30 kilometers) long, or, if a binary, each about 9-12 miles (15-20 kilometers) in diameter.

Second artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, which is the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons mission. Scientists speculate that the Kuiper Belt object could be a single body (above) with a large chunk taken out of it, or two bodies (main image) that are close together or even touching. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker)

“This new finding is simply spectacular. The shape of MU69 is truly provocative, and could mean another first for New Horizons going to a binary object in the Kuiper Belt,” said Alan Stern, mission principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “I could not be happier with the occultation results, which promise a scientific bonanza for the flyby.”

The July 17 stellar occultation event that gathered these data was the third of a historic set of three ambitious occultation observations for New Horizons. The team used data from the Hubble Space Telescope and European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to calculate and pinpoint where MU69 would cast a shadow on Earth’s surface. “Both of these space satellites were crucial to the success of the entire occultation campaign,” added Stern.

Said Marc Buie, the New Horizons co-investigator who led the observation campaign, “These exciting and puzzling results have already been key for our mission planning, but also add to the mysteries surrounding this target leading into the New Horizons encounter with MU69, now less than 17 months away.”

Follow the mission and observation campaign at the NASA New Horizons website and the mission’s KBO Chasers page.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Nothing in the Solar System is ‘not interesting’. “Been there, done that.” is going to looked at as some of the most ignorant statements high placed leaders will have made in the 20th and early 21st century.

  • publiusr

    If they aren’t contact binaries–it might be nice to see the probe fly between them

  • therealdmt

    They aren’t any “contact binaries”; it’s just gonna be some dumb cigar-shaped rock. Ice. Rock/ice thing

  • Aerospike

    My bet is on a rubber duck shaped object 😉

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    …might be plastic duck shaped….possibly smoking a cigar

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I think it’ll be too far away to see that

  • duheagle

    If there are two or more objects instead of one, that fact might be discoverable via future occultation observations made between now and when New Horizons arrives in 2014 MU69’s vicinity. Just one double occultation with a brief “flash” in between would confirm two separate objects and provide a rough estimate of separation distance.

    Having New Horizons “thread the needle,” though, is almost certainly impossible. Navigation at such distances is tricky enough without trying to fly through a gap that may not be properly situated for such barnstorming when New Horizons actually reaches its quarry.

    There would also be the tricky matter of which way to orient the sensors. Even if 2014 MU69 turns out to be a cluster object, it seems to me it would be more valuable, from a science standpoint, to get images and readings of the whole shebang than trying to skim closer to the biggest chunk.

    That would be especially true if attempting to do so ran New Horizons into some bit of debris that destroyed it and prevented the transmission of all the images and science gathered. New Horizons, recall, took many months to dump back Earthward all the science it gathered quickly when zipping by the Pluto system. 2014 MU69 is even further away and that will cut the achievable bit rate still more.

  • duheagle

    With heavy eyebrows and a mustache.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Ocultation is a type of observation that used to be supported by both professional and amateur observers. It reached its peak in the 1970’s with roving bands of observers who had portable observing setups ready to go much like storm chasers today. But it died out in the 80’s as the amateur band aged out, and funding dried up in the planetary community. It’s still a observation type that would be really useful (as you can see), and in the age of the internet would be much easier to pull off given how the quality and quantity of amateur observers and their equipment has increased over the decades. It’s a perfect example of how the amateur community could fill a yawning gap in our current observations. And given their geographical dispersion, and large numbers, a coordinated group of say 20 or 30 observers per continent need not travel too far to chase down an event.