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New Horizons Has New Target In Sight

New Horizons is most famous for its Pluto flyby, which gave us the most clear picture of the dwarf planet to date. Now this spacecraft has a new target in sight in the form of a small Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69. This object was discovered using images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in June 2014 and is 1.6 billion kilometers beyond Pluto.

The flyby of 2014 MU69 will occur in January 2019. This Kuiper Belt object is less than 45 kilometers in diameter and has an orbit that could indicate that it’s one of the primordial remnants of the formation of our solar system. The investigation of this object was determined to be the best use of New Horizon’s limited remaining fuel because it won’t be able to maneuver much after reaching its new target. The plutonium that powers this spacecraft is expected to be depleted by the mid-2030s.

Scientists Still Plowing Through Data from Pluto Flyby

Scientists involved in the New Horizons project are unlikely to be bored while waiting for New Horizons to reach its new target. Recently, NASA released stunning new images of Pluto that show a surprisingly complex landscape with a wide variety of geological formations. These landscapes may indicate processes occurring on Pluto that were previously unsuspected, such as dunes being formed by wind.

The spacecraft gathered so much data from the Pluto flyby that it took 16 months to transmit that data back to Earth. Scientists are still sorting through that data, which has already yielded interesting information related to Pluto’s features and its relationship with Charon.

Pluto and Charon are tidally locked and Charon has a red spot that may indicate that it is stealing atmosphere from Pluto. The red spot may be caused by frozen methane and nitrogen that forms a sticky residue which contains organic molecules called tholins.

Interesting features on Pluto include ice spikes that can grow to several feet tall. Known as penitentes, these formations only form in environments in which water can change from ice to vapor without going through a liquid phase first – a process known as sublimation.

An artist's concept of how Pluto may have rotated after colliding with an object. Image credit New York Times
An artist’s concept of how Pluto may have rotated after colliding with an object. Image credit New York Times

Pluto’s now-famous heart-shaped formation was quickly given the name of Tombaugh Regio and is actually believed to be two distinct features. This surface feature consists of high concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide. Scientists now believe that the heart is facing away from Charon because a comparatively massive object slammed into Pluto, causing it to rotate. During the process, heavier regions of Pluto caused it to reorient itself so that the heart now appears to reside in the southern hemisphere. An ocean of slushy ice water under Tombaugh Regio may have contributed to the heavy region that caused Pluto to rotate this way.

The data from New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto may yield more interesting discoveries as scientists make progress sorting through the massive amounts of data.

What’s Next for New Horizons?

Because New Horizons will begin running low on fuel in the near future, it’s unlikely that it will make any major maneuvers to reach new targets after investigating 2014 MU69. The New Horizons team hopes that there will be targets within the limited range that the spacecraft will have after 2014 MU69. Kelsi Singer of the science team said of it:

“It’s possible that we’ll be able to observe some other objects, but we haven’t identified any of them yet. So we’re going to keep an eye out to see what we can find. It’s possible that we’ll be able to observe some other objects, but we haven’t identified any of them yet. So we’re going to keep an eye out to see what we can find.”

Because of the lower gravity of the target Kuiper Belt object, New Horizons will be able to get close enough to get higher-resolution photos of 2014 MU69 than it did with Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft will reach the halfway point of its journey to 2014 MU69 in April.

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About Heidi Hecht

Heidi Hecht is a space geek, freelance content writer and owner of the Nothing in Particular Blog. She is also a published author with a new book, "Blockchain Space: How And Why Cryptocurrencies Fit Into The Space Age", now available on Amazon and Google Play.

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