NASA’s New Horizons space probe has been busy the past few years. After traveling roughly 4.67 billion miles to reach the dwarf planet Pluto’s system in July of 2015, the spacecraft is now moving on to its next target, an object discovered in the Kuiper Belt by the Hubble Space Telescope in June of 2014 and dubbed 2014 MU69.
Pluto also lies in the Kuiper Belt, a “distant region surrounds the solar system and is filled with trillions of icy rocks that have yet to be explored,” as Space.com calls it. However, 2014 MU69 is approximately another 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.
While researches patiently wait for New Horizons to make its way to 2014 MU69, they will have an abundance of data sent back from the probe’s Pluto flyby to keep them occupied.
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) January 22, 2017
“The New Horizons flyby of the Pluto system was completely successful, and now we’ve got all the data on the ground and we’re putting a bow around it,” Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute, said in a Facebook Live event on Thursday, according to Space.com.
New Horizons sent back an array of images and other data from the Pluto system. Some of what was discovered was anticipated by astronomers and other scientists. Other bits of information, however, came as somewhat of a surprise to researchers.
“One thing that we discovered is that small planets can be just as complex as big planets, and that really blew away our expectations,” Stern said.
The unexpected discoveries have made scientists eager to see the results from further exploration of the Kuiper Belt.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, one of the most interesting discoveries made by New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto was evidence of an “ocean of slushy water” beneath Pluto’s surface. Based on evidence visible on the surface of the planet, planetary scientist Francis Nimmo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, calculated that the ocean of slush ice was approximately 93 to 124 miles underground and reached depths of up to 62 miles.
Researchers said that despite Pluto reaching temperatures of negative 387 degrees Fahrenheit, the dwarf planet had retained enough internal radioactive heat from its creation for some liquids to remain in a semi-frozen, but still somewhat liquid state within its core.
Latest photos of Pluto and it’s moon Charon sent back from New Horizons pic.twitter.com/xWBjfxmwXu
— outvade ☾ (@outvade) January 14, 2017
“Pluto has enough rock that there’s quite a lot of heat being generated, and an ice shell a few hundred kilometers thick is quite a good insulator,” Nimmo told Reuters. “So a deep subsurface ocean is not too surprising, especially if the ocean contains ammonia, which acts like an antifreeze.”
Data from 2014 MU69 will certainly provide another amazing cache of information from the outer reaches of our solar system, but that will probably be the last target that New Horizons will be able to reach.
During the Facebook Live event, Glen Fountain, who serves as the the New Horizons encounter project manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, explained that New Horizons is powered by radioactive plutonium that could continue to propel the probe for another 20 years. It will probably deplete its full sources soon after that, however, and likely will not be able to reach another target beyond 2014 MU69, even though it is expected to reach that target sometime in 2019.
The problem lies primarily in not being able to guide New Horizons on a new path without burning up a lot of extra fuel in the course of doing so.
“We won’t be able to switch directions, but we’ll still keep going out,” Singer said. “It’s possible that we’ll be able to observe some other objects, but we haven’t identified any of them yet. So we’re going to keep an eye out to see what we can find.”
New Horizons was launched by NASA in 2006, meaning it took almost nine years for it to reach Pluto’s system. It looks like we will not have to wait nearly as long for it to send back data from its next target.
[Featured Image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]