A $700 million NASA spacecraft is now traveling more than 36,000 mph toward the edge of the solar system on a mission to explore a strange red object astronomers noticed in the depths of outer space.
NASA’s New Horizons probe, the fastest man-made craft ever launched into space, flew by Pluto last year capturing amazing photographs and is now hurtling toward 2014 MU69, a strange red asteroid in the Kuiper Belt.
Recent observations from the Hubble Telescope show the asteroid is at least as red as Pluto, if not redder; it’s the smallest Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) to have its color measured.
Measurements are difficult to take at this distance, but scientists believe the distant KBO is about 20 to 30 miles in diameter. It’s located about 1 billion miles past Pluto and is colored red like the dwarf planet and its moon Charon suggesting the presence of tholin.
Tholin isn’t found naturally on Earth; it’s formed when simple organic compounds like methane are irradiated by ultraviolet rays. The chemical, found in the atmosphere of Titan and Pluto, can protect the surface of a planet from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.
New Horizons is hurtling toward the KBO, 2014 MU69, located in the “cold classical region” of the distant asteroid belt, an area known to harbor the oldest objects in the solar system that haven’t changed for 4.6 billion years.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will pass the asteroid MU69 New Year’s Day 2019 at a range of 1,860 miles, closer than it came to Pluto, New Horizons researcher Amanda Zangari told Space.
“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.”
To get there, the space probe will still need to travel another 600 million miles; the spacecraft is currently 3.4 billion miles from Earth and traveling toward the outer reaches of the solar system at the shocking speed of nine miles per second.
It will explore the cold classical region of the Kuiper Belt; the area is home to remnants of the primordial disc that formed the early planets and NASA scientists hope its mission will teach them about the formation of the early solar system.
When the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto in July 2015, it captured amazing photos showing the dwarf planet had a complex and active landscape complete with huge mountains NASA engineers can’t explain.
The spacecraft also caught some amazing photos of Pluto’s moon Charon. The images show evidence of landslides, possibly caused by meteor impacts or tectonic activity, which would be a first for objects this far out in space, Sagan Center science team researcher Ross Beyer told Science World Report. Pluto doesn’t have landslides although photos have captured images of material that seems to move downhill in what scientists are referring to as a rock fall.
“We’ve seen similar landslides on other rocky and icy planets, such as Mars and Saturn’s moon Iapetus, but these are the first landslides we’ve seen this far from the sun, in the Kuiper Belt.”
The probe has been sending information on Pluto and its moon back to NASA for the past 15 months and is now 99 percent complete with the transmission. The probe’s mission was extended for at least two years after its successful Pluto flyby; its next mission will be investigating 2014 MU69, a strange red asteroid in the Kuiper Belt, according to NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green.
“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise. We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”
[Featured Image by NASA]