The New horizons spacecraft is currently racing away from Pluto to the outskirts of the solar system, but NASA officials have another target in mind for the observatory. By the time it gets there, the vehicle will have traveled a billion miles past the distant orbit of Pluto.
This summer, 2014 MU69 could be visited by the spacecraft as part of an extended mission. Astronomers believe this object may be a relic preserved from the formation of our family of planets 4.6 billion years ago.
The Kuiper Belt consists of a vast collection of rocks and chunks of ice, which orbits in a massive ring outside the orbits of the eight known planets.
Astronomers believe MU69 has remained relatively unchanged since its formation, orbiting slowly in the depths of the solar system. Other large Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), such as Pluto and Eris, have seen their orbits change due to the gravitational influence of Neptune. Bodies like MU69 are referred to as “cold classical objects,” denoting that they do not approach any other significant mass.
“The Kuiper Belt in general, and the cold classical objects especially, are the most primordial objects. 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,” said Simon Porter, an investigator working on the New Horizons mission.
Little is known about MU69, as the object is too small — just 20 to 30 miles across — to be seen by astronomers on Earth. Around three in every 10 cold classical objects are known to possess at least one satellite, so the frigid body may have a tiny companion.
No spacecraft from Earth has ever before visited a cold classical object, and astronomers hope such a mission will shed new light on the formation of our solar system. Before New Horizon pays a visit to MU69, mission planners will require funding to carry out the mission.
New Horizons launched to Pluto in 2006, when that body was still classified as a planet — the last never visited by a spacecraft. On July 14, 2015, the observatory made mankind’s first-ever flyby of that distant body, and the vehicle continues on, exploring the mysteries of the Kuiper Belt.
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