spaceSpace and Physics

NASA Reveals Bold Plan For Its New Horizons Spacecraft After Pluto


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Artist's impression of New Horizons and MU69, which may be a binary object. Carlos Hernandez

If you’ve been following the New Horizon mission after Pluto, you’ll know it’s on its way to an asteroid in the outer Solar System. And now NASA has revealed what the spacecraft will be doing when it arrives in 2019.

That asteroid is called MU69, thought to be a remnant of the early Solar System. It orbits the Sun about 1.5 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) from Pluto, and 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from Earth.


New Horizons is scheduled to fly past MU69 on January 1, 2019. According to the plan, the spacecraft will come within just 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) of the surface, which is more than three times closer than it got to Pluto.

A contingency plan, if debris is discovered around the small object, would see New Horizons approach to 12,500 kilometers (7,800 miles).

“The entire encounter will last Sep 2018 to Jan 2019,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern told IFLScience. “The close approach and detailed imaging though is Dec 30 to Jan 2."

If the closer flyby goes ahead, the spacecraft will be able to see details as small as 70 meters (230 feet) on the surface of MU69. On Pluto, it could resolve details of about 183 meters (600 feet). So expect to see some rather stunning imagery.


“We’re planning to fly closer to MU69 than Pluto to get even higher resolution imagery and other datasets,” Stern said in a statement. “The science should be spectacular.”

Exactly what MU69 will look like isn’t clear yet, but we’re starting to get a better idea. This was thanks to the small object passing in front of a star a couple of months ago relative to Earth. Scientists then studied the shadow of the object as it passed over Earth.

Those studies suggest the object (which has a reddish hue) may actually be a binary, two smaller objects orbiting close to each other. If it’s a single object, it may be about 30 kilometers (20 miles) long. If it’s a double object, each is thought to be 15 to 20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles) in diameter.

Further details will be hard to come by until New Horizons gets close. Like the flyby of Pluto, we’ll simply have to wait and see what secrets this unexplored body of the Solar System holds.


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