After providing a stunning image of 1994 JR1, New Horizons pushes onward into the mysterious Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons has been one of the most enlightening space missions of the past decade, and it’s far from over. As we reported recently, the spacecraft has officially passed into the Kuiper Belt some 3 billion miles from the sun, and is ready to start exploring the farthest edges of the solar system.
The space probe recently delivered an image of 1994 JR1, a 90-mile-wide Kuiper Belt Object, back to astronomers here on Earth. The Kuiper Belt is of particular interest because many of the objects inhabiting this region haven’t changed much since the solar system’s earliest days – offering new insights into what conditions were like when it formed.
The New Horizons mission aims to learn more about Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, and scientists have set their sights on the next subject. The mysterious 2014 MU69 presents a unique opportunity for astronomers to explore an object about which little is known.
2014 MU69 was formed in the same region of the solar system where it orbits, and is right in New Horizons’ path. Kuiper Belt Objects receive little warmth from the sun and could hold preserved samples from the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. By researching these objects, scientists can peer into the path and study the forces at work during the formation of the solar system.
According to a statement from Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, “2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by. Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons team, added, “New Horizons was originally designed to fly beyond the Pluto system and explore additional Kuiper Belt objects. The spacecraft carries extra hydrazine fuel for a KBO flyby; its communications system is designed to work from far beyond Pluto; its power system is designed to operate for many more years; and its scientific instruments were designed to operate in light levels much lower than it will experience during the 2014 MU69 flyby.”
The news release describing NASA’s interest in 2014 MU69 can be found below.