Pending NASA’s Approval, New Horizons Will Explore MU69 in Kuiper Belt – CDA News

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Pending NASA’s approval, expected to come sometime this summer, the New Horizons spacecraft will continue on past its Pluto mission to explore an object in the Kuiper Belt, called MU69 or 2014 MU69, which is one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), located beyond Pluto. The New Horizons team of scientists are hopeful NASA will grant its approval, as the continuation of the current mission could provide them with a great deal of information about how the solar system was like in its earlier day, over 4 billion years ago, according to BABW News.

Pending NASA’s Approval, New Horizons Will Explore MU69 in Kuiper Belt

The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped belt of rocky and icy debris orbiting the sun, at the edge of the solar system. Simon Porter, a member of the New Horizons team said, “They were never pushed around by the giant planets; they’re pretty much where they formed and haven’t been disturbed except for occasionally bumping into each other.”

Even prior to getting approval by NASA, New Horizons is headed towards the KBO known as MU69, an object referred to as being a “cold classical” one. They are called cold classical objects because objects in the Kuiper belt are so far away from the sun, some 3 billion miles, that they do not receive much light or heat from it.

NASA’s New Horizons space probe has already sent back to Earth an image of a 90-mile-wide KBO called 1994 JR1. New Horizons is already flying in the Kuiper Belt, with enough fuel left for several more years, if NASA allows it to continue its mission of exploration.

KBOs are very interesting to scientists because they believe that many of the objects in the Kuiper Belt have remained unchanged, or little changed, since the birth of the solar system, approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The KBOs could provide scientists with information about the forces at work when the solar system was formed.

There were many possible KBOs which the scientific research team that is behind NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft could have, potentially, decided to explore next. However, 2014 MU69 was the one they chose to have New Horizons journey to next, because, as Alan Stern, with Boulder, Colorado’s Southwest Research Institute, said it is an ancient KBO that formed in the same place in which it is currently orbiting and one that the Decadal Survey wanted them to fly by.

An added incentive to explore 2014 MU69, according to Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons team, was that it “cost less fuel to reach.” This was vital in choosing to journey to 2014 MU69, as it left “more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”

The New Horizons spacecraft is fueled by hydrazine fuel, and Stern stated that it carries enough of the fuel “for a KBO flyby.” Stern mentioned that three additional benefits to exploring 2014 MU69 over other KBOs were that it has a communications system that can work from far beyond Pluto, it is equipped with a power system that will allow it to work for many more years, and New Horizons has scientific instruments that can function “in light levels much lower than it will experience during the 2014 MU69 flyby.”

2014 MU69 is “approximately 20 to 30 miles across.” Because it is so small and distant, the exact measurements and brightness of the object is not yet known. The New Horizons team hopes that, despite 2014 MU69 being so small, it will have at least one moon. They estimate that about 30 percent of the larger KBOs have one or more moons.

Though NASA’s New Horizons research team has images from the Hubble telescope to go by, they are unable to determine by the images if 2014 MU69 has any moons. Simon Porter, a member of the New Horizons team, said that there was “a pretty good chance that this thing’s got at least one satellite.” He said that it could have a small moon, or a big one, or several moons. He stated, “We really don’t know.”

The New Horizons research team also does not know what they will learn about when it comes to the geology and surface composition of 2014 MU69. According to Porter, the team really has no idea what to expect. He said that NASA has “been to comets, but comets are degraded versions of these things.” Porter added, “It’s the last unknown type of object in the solar system that we’re going to visit.”

According to Maine News Online, Porter and the other members of the New Horizons team hope that they will be able to not only learn more about 2014 MU69, but will also be able to count the craters on it.

The New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to the KBO 2014 MU69, but, according to Porter, the team needs to get NASA’s approval to keep the space probe on for that long to get the chance to explore the Kuiper Belt Object. Without NASA’s approval, “We would literally turn off the spacecraft this year,” he said. For more CDA News, follow our tweets on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

By John Samuels

Photo Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pending NASA’s Approval, New Horizons Will Explore MU69 in Kuiper Belt – CDA News