Space

Nasa’s New Horizons’ Kuiper Belt Target MU69 might be hiding a moon

Nasa's New Horizons' next flyby target may have a moon.

After its surprising flyby of Pluto in 2015, investigators have just discovered that the probe’s next aim is not one object but very likely two. Earth-based investigations recommend the small icy world, referred to simply as MU69, has a moonlet. It appears New Horizons will now be making a two-for-the-price-of-one flyby when it has its encounter on New Year’s Eve, 2019.

The plan is for the satellite to pass the 30-40km-wide primary object with a detachment of just 3,500km, obtaining high-resolution pictures and other data.

This should unveil new knowledge on the Kuiper Belt – the band of distant, frozen material that encompasses distant from the Sun. On flyby day, MU69 and New Horizon will be around 6.5 billion km from Earth.

“Besides being the farthest investigation in the history of humankind, this flyby is also going to the most fundamental and pristine object ever investigated,” said Prof Alan Stern, the principal investigator on New Horizons.

We have never been to anything like this. Of course, we’ve had lots of missions to comets that come from the Kuiper Belt, but they have come down into the inner Solar System where they’re prepared, sometimes through hundreds of passages by the Sun, and they are much smaller. “If you recognize Rosetta’s comet, 67P, which you saw so many pictures of from that great ESA/Nasa mission, this is a much larger target. It could fit about a thousand Rosetta comets inside itself.”

Prof Stern was giving an update on arrangements for the MU69 encounter here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

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