Every second that goes by, New Horizons is 9 miles closer to its next target – 2014 MU69. New Hubble Space Telescope data suggests the small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) shares Pluto’s color. No, not a drab gray shade. Red. A natural color map of Pluto released last year reveals shades of reddish brown across the icy surface.
On Pluto, the likely cause is hydrocarbon molecules (called tholins) formed as cosmic rays and UV light slam into methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface. The new data from Hubble suggests 2014 MU69 is an even deeper shade of red than what we’ve seen on Pluto. And suggests the presence of tholins on this tiny, even more distant world.
Hubble’s observations also confirm New Horizons next destination belongs to the “cold classical region of the Kuiper Belt.” Where bodies have remained untouched since the formation of the solar system.
“The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets,” said Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons researcher.
What kind of pictures we can expect of MU69
I wrote about what we can expect when New Horizons reaches its KBO target earlier this year, but let’s take another look. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, covered MU69 in detail earlier this year. Here’s a breakdown of what the spacecraft will do during its 2019 flyby.
– Detailed global and high-resolution mapping, including color mapping.
– Search for moons.
– Studying MU69’s surface and hunting for an atmosphere.
– And taking stunning images.
We won’t get quite the close-up images like we did with Pluto, but our views of MU69 will still be stunning.
Here’s a simulation of what the Ralph/MVIC (left) and LORRI (right) will see during closest approach. The image below is of Mars’ moon Phobos, but it gives us an idea of the resolution we can expect.
The New Horizons team will be looking at a body left untouched since the earliest days of the solar system. Is it cratered across its entire surface? Or, are there areas of resurfacing hiding its chaotic past? How red is it? Does it have any moons? Atmosphere? These are just a few of the questions New Horizons will help answer as it zooms past the 20-30 mile across object.
Pluto taught us to expect the unexpected. And have patience. New Horizons will finally complete its data transmission from its July 14, 2015 flyby on Sunday (October 23). Downlinking all the data from the MU69 flyby will take even longer at 20 months.