NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft stunned the world in 2015 when it beamed back the first high-resolution images of Pluto’s surface. The planet most of us thought was just an icy rock towards the edge of our solar system turned out to be so much more.
Water-ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers and maybe even a liquid ocean. Scientists continue to receive and analyze data from the close encounter with Pluto.
And as many of us expected, New Horizons’ mission isn’t over yet. NASA officially gave the New Horizons team the green light to fly to the small Kuiper Belt object (KBO), 2014 MU69, on Friday.
Did You Know: The New Horizons team already fired up the engines to get the spacecraft on a trajectory with MU69. In late 2015, the spacecraft executed a burn that will help it reach a January 1, 2019 close encounter with the KBO. NASA agreed the burn was necessary before official mission extension was approved. If they waited, it would have cost too much fuel to get there.
NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green summed it up best. “The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” says Green. “We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”
2014 MU69 may be only recently discovered, but it is ancient. It dates back to a time when our solar system was just beginning to take shape. Studying this KBO will give us clues of how the early solar system looked. And a potential sneak peek at the type of object that would have been involved in planetary accretion (basically, the formation of the rocky planets).
What will 2014 MU69 look like?
More importantly, what kind of image resolution can we expect to see? First, let’s take a quick look at how big the object is.
Estimates put MU69 somewhere between 21 to 40 kilometers across. That’s close to 1,000 times bigger than Comet 67P Rosetta is getting ready to crash into. But, 500,000 times less massive than Pluto. The size differences are obvious. That just means we need to get closer.
When New Horizons flies by MU69, it will do so at a distance of just 1,900 miles. Four times closer than when the spacecraft flew past Pluto.
According to Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, imaging and mapping spectroscopy resolutions are “expected to be even better than what we achieved at the Pluto system!”
Stern also gives us an idea of what kind of images we can expect from MU69. Here’s a simulated Ralph/MVIC and LORRI (the cameras aboard New Horizons) image of MU69 using Mars’ moon Phobos (MU69 is close to the same size) as an analog.
Obviously, MU69 isn’t Phobos – but that’s the kind of resolution we can expect.
And we just thought the images from Pluto were epic! Who knows what kind of surface features we’ll see on MU69. If Pluto taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
The spacecraft will train all seven of its scientific instruments on the KBO. Everything from detailed mapping of its surface to searches for moons will be conducted. Does MU69 have an atmosphere? What is its surface made up of? Those are a couple of the many questions the New Horizons team hopes to help answer in two and a half years.
And get ready for the inevitable surprises. Does MU69 resemble Pluto? Or is it different? If it is different, what does that mean for other KBOs? The next few years are going to give us an exciting look at the far reaches of our solar system.
Let’s assume everything goes smoothly. New Horizons reaches MU69 on January 1, 2019 and gathers a bunch of data. Remember how long it took the spacecraft to send back all of its Pluto data? Hell, it’s still going on. The data downlink from MU69 will take even longer. 20 months. It will be at least late 2020 before NASA hears the last from New Horizons.
And that won’t be the end of New Horizons’ story. The data gathered by the incredible spacecraft will be analyzed for years to come.
A great start to New Frontiers
New Horizons is the first mission under NASA’s New Frontiers program. You’ve heard a lot about the second one in recent weeks. If you enjoyed following New Horizons, be sure to keep an eye on Juno. It’s scheduled to enter Jupiter’s orbit tomorrow.
Under this program, spacecraft will shed light on the formation of our solar system. Here’s the specific list of goals from NASA:
– How did the Sun’s family of planets and minor bodies originate?
– How did the solar system evolve to its current diverse state?
– What are the characteristics of the solar system that led to the origin of life?
– How did life begin and evolve on Earth and has it evolved elsewhere in the solar system?
– What are the hazards and resources in the solar system environment that will affect the extension of human presence in space?
The third mission, OSIRIS-REx is expected to launch on September 8, 2016. It will study the near-Earth asteroid, Bennu. The asteroid measures about 1,600 feet in diameter and could tell us more about the building blocks of life on Earth.
What sets OSIRIS-REx apart from New Horizons and Juno is it’s coming back home. The plan is to collect a sample of the asteroid once it reaches it in 2018. In 2021, it will leave the asteroid and head back to Earth with an expected return date of 2023.
It’s exciting times to be a space fan.