In the outer reaches of our solar system, NASA’s New Horizons space probe is currently sailing away from Earth at an average velocity of 36,373 mph. It has already completed its primary objective, sending back detailed images of Pluto and its moon Charon during its historic 2015 flyby.

The probe is now set to explore other objects in the Kuiper Belt. This belt covers a vast region of space beyond Neptune and is home to millions of icy bodies left over from the formation of the planets.

NASA has announced that the probe’s next target will be 2014 MU69, a mysterious, irregularly shaped celestial body about 16 miles long and a billion miles away from Pluto. The nametag stems from it being first observed by the Hubble telescope in the year 2014. If the mission is successful, MU69 will be the farthest object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Will Grundy is a key member of the New Horizons project. He is the leader of the surface composition theme team, based out of the Lowell Observatory here in Flagstaff. He hopes that a close-up view of MU69 will provide scientists with clues as to how the solar system came to exist today, particularly the planets that share the same chemical compounds as the object.

“These are the building blocks of the outer planets,” he said. “We don’t know a whole lot about that process yet because it happened four and a half billion years ago. And until now, we’ve never been able get a close enough look at one of these objects.”

The flyby will bring New Horizons within 2,200 miles of MU69. Imaging equipment aboard the probe will provide scientists with more clarity about the surface composition and geology of the object, revealing whether the object has traces of frozen water, ammonia, methane or carbon monoxide -- the same elements that constitute the outer planets. Scientists will then also look for evidence of any elusive moons or rings that might be in orbit.

The longevity of the project hinges upon the new data being transmitted back to Earth. Every adjustment of New Horizon’s trajectory consumes precious fuel. For that reason, Grundy explained that the team has to be precise when choosing which bodies are worth taking a closer look at.

“By good fortune, MU69 happens to be almost on a collision course with the spacecraft already,” he said. “So we diverted the spacecraft ever so slightly so that it would fly past close enough for study.”

The flyby is set to be on January 1st of 2019. Anyone interested in tracking New Horizon’s progress will be able to follow the craft’s voyage at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Mission/Where-is-New-Horizons/index.php

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Eric J. Duong is this year’s NAU-NASA Space Grant science writing intern at the Daily Sun.


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