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Space and Physics

New Horizons’ Next Target Might Have A Moon

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockDec 13 2017, 15:00 UTC

Artist's impression of New Horizons and MU69. Nice. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It’s just a little bit more than a year until NASA’s New Horizons will fly past 2014 MU69, its next target, and astronomers are combing the data to understand as much as possible about the object before the fateful encounter.

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Just a few months ago, NASA announced that MU69 might actually be two objects orbiting really close to each other, or one peanut-shaped object, and a new analysis suggests that it might have a small moon. Over the summer, the space rock passed in front of a star and researchers used this event, called occultation, to learn more about MU69.

“We really won’t know what MU69 looks like until we fly past it, or even gain a full understanding of it until after the encounter,” New Horizons science team member Marc Buie, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, said in a statement. “But even from afar, the more we examine it, the more interesting and amazing this little world becomes.”

The data suggesting a potential moon come from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope mounted inside an airplane. SOFIA observed the object on July 10 and among the observations, there was a “blip” in starlight. Analysis showed that the blip was another object around MU69.

“A binary with a smaller moon might also help explain the shifts we see in the position of MU69 during these various occultations,” Buie added. “It’s all very suggestive, but another step in our work to get a clear picture of MU69 before New Horizons flies by, just over a year from now.”

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New Horizons has already recorded the most distant flyby on record when it flew past Pluto in 2015, and it will surpass that on January 1, 2019, when it reaches MU69, 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from Earth. MU69 is estimated to be around 30 kilometers (20 miles) long.

“The occultation effort that Marc Buie and his team led for New Horizons has been invaluable in opening our eyes to the very real possibilities that MU69 is both a lot more complex than anyone suspected, and that it holds many surprises for us at flyby on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, 2019,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, also from the Southwest Research Institute. “The allure of its exploration is becoming stronger and stronger as we learn more and more about it. It’s just fantastic!”

While 2019 is getting closer, you can tide yourselves over by voting for a nickname for MU69.


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