In just under a year, one of the most audacious space missions ever will take place when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft visits an object in the outer Solar System. It will be the most distant object we’ve ever explored, one that could give us a fascinating insight into our own beginnings.
The target is 2014 MU69, a mysterious Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto – itself visited by New Horizons in July 2015. Thought to be a remnant of the early Solar System, MU69 is a possible binary object no more than 32 kilometers (20 miles) across that’s hiding plenty of secrets.
On January 1, 2019, those secrets are set to be revealed, when New Horizons will swoop past the surface before continuing on its path out of the Solar System. Preparation for this groundbreaking moment begins much earlier, however, with a number of key dates throughout 2018 leading up to the climax.
“This dot in the distance is going to grow brighter and brighter all the way until the very last days of the year,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, told IFLScience. “Our project schedule has hundreds of milestones.”
The excitement begins on June 4, when the spacecraft will be woken from hibernation. In August, it will begin taking observational images of the object from afar to ensure it’s on the right track to fly past at a distance of 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) – more than three times closer than the Pluto flyby.
In September, the team will start searching for moons orbiting the object, important for ensuring the flyby goes smoothly. From October onwards, the quality of images snapped by New Horizons will surpass that of Hubble, used to discover MU69 in 2014.