NASA has chosen the next destination for the New Horizons spacecraft – 2014 MU69. It may not have the same name recognition as Pluto, the last object the spacecraft took pictures of, but it still interests NASA researchers.
According to Vox, 2014 MU69 is a 30-mile-wide icy object in the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is a sphere of rocks and materials that surround the solar system.
NASA officially approved the new mission today, choosing 2014 MU69 over other celestial bodies in the region (called Kuiper Belt Objects or KBOs). New Horizons should reach the new location by January 2019, assuming everything goes well.
Whether it continues its journey or not, the New Horizons has already earned national fame for its amazing photos of the dwarf Pluto.
According to NBC News, NASA’s Stuart Robbins recently released an animation using real footage from the spacecraft to recreate New Horizons’ trip so far.
Robbins explained more about the animation on a blog post.
“Beyond that, everything about the movie is accurate. The Pluto hemisphere we see on closest approach, the lighting and shadows, the atmosphere’s size (though its brightness has been increased), the orbits of the satellites, the colors are our best estimate for what your eye would see, and so on. It’s an incredible look at system we are unlikely to revisit in our lifetimes.”
Will the journey to 2014 MU69 be as impressive?
The New York Times reports the next icy sphere won’t have the same “breathtaking and varied” vistas, but it would give new insight into how the solar system’s planets were formed. Researchers also don’t know much about the distant region of the solar system, giving even more reason to study it.
NASA scientists have been using the Hubble Telescope to spot potential objects to travel to. 2014 MU69 was chosen over another close contender, 2014 PN70.
MU69 is a little smaller but it will be easier to reach.
As New Horizons principal investigator S. Alan Stern explained, “It’s better science and lower risk.”
KBOs were all typically made 4.6 billion years ago, about the same time Earth and other inner planets were coming together. Although the planets continued to evolve, the KBOs remained the same (making them perfect time capsules).
NASA will tell New Horizons to fire up its thrusters in October to start heading off to 2014 MU69.
After reaching the next location in 2019, it will take pictures and gather data and continue on its way out of the solar system. New Horizons is expected to run out of power in 2030.
[Image Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons]