What was. What is. And what’s coming. NASA recently released a four-minute video touching on some of the discoveries already made by the hardy Pluto probe. We also get a glimpse of what it’s doing right now and the probe’s next target, 2014 MU69.
New Horizons revealed Pluto to be much more than a drab rock at the end of the solar system. Instead, Pluto is home to geologically active areas, nitrogen glaciers, and even possible clouds.
“If there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern is quoted in the video. “The atmosphere can snow, making bright surface deposits,” Stern added.
New Horizons is more than a year away from its close flyby of 2014 MU69, but there are still instruments onboard the spacecraft gathering science. The Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) continues to gather solar wind observations as the probe pushes onward into the Kuiper Belt.
As for 2014 MU69? The 20-mile across object might have a surprise for us. That 20-mile across object could be two 9-12 mile objects in diameter. Yep, 2014 MU69 might be an object called a contact binary.
In July, a stellar occultation event helped gather data about the object’s size, shape, and orbit. Several telescopes in Argentina’s Patagonia region managed to catch the event. The observations reveal 2014 MU69 to have an “odd” shape. Something more akin to a skinny football instead of a more rounded object. It could even be a binary pair.
Instead of better understanding what New Horizons team will see in 2019, the observations only offer more questions. Stern expressed his and the team’s excitement about the recent observations. “This new finding is simply spectacular. The shape of MU69 is truly provocative, and could mean another first for New Horizons going to a binary object in the Kuiper Belt,” said Stern. “I could not be happier with the occultation results, which promise a scientific bonanza for the flyby.
I’m sure 2014 MU69 will offer its own spectacular images, but I don’t see how it can top the Pluto flyby.
The 2019 flyby won’t be the last we hear of New Horizons. By 2021, the probe will be 50 times the distance from the Earth to the sun. And still making observations as it ventures further into the distant solar system.
You can keep tabs of New Horizons’ location at its official website. Or watch it communicate with NASA’s Deep Space Network. Right now, New Horizons is silent, but you can see several other missions communicating with Earth including Voyager 1 and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
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