14 January 2018
The New Horizons Pluto flyby was an formidable mission. On the time of launch, its vacation spot was recognized solely as a blurry distant physique. We knew a few of its properties, corresponding to its mass and tough floor coloring, however we weren’t even sure of its precise measurement. However the legal guidelines of gravity are extraordinarily exact, so we may guarantee New Horizons would attain its goal. The thriller was what it will discover.
What New Horizons found stunned us all. Relatively than a chilly inert world, we discovered Pluto has a skinny ambiance, that it has icy mountains, and is probably going thermally energetic. The mission confirmed us simply how unusual and wondrous the photo voltaic system could possibly be past Neptune. It piqued our curiosity in related distant our bodies.
We all know even much less about different worlds. Their great distance and small sizes make them troublesome to check. Now we have found numerous objects, some with rings, some with moons, and a few even bigger than Pluto. However every of those are seen solely as small blurry dots even with our greatest telescopes. A mission to any of those worlds can be as expensive as New Horizons, and can be a troublesome promote in our present financial setting.
So the New Horizons workforce regarded for distant worlds their spacecraft may have the ability to attain. They settled on a small physique generally known as 2014 MU69. Found eight years after the launch of New Horizons, it’s a small world solely about 20 to 30 kilometers broad. From the blurry pictures we’ve, it seems to be a detailed or contact binary, just like the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It’s troublesome to inform, as a result of 2014 MU69 is a couple of billion miles additional away from the Solar than Pluto, or about 25% extra distant. We do, nevertheless, know the trail of its orbit, and with the equations of Newton’s gravity the New Horizons workforce is aware of it might probably attain it.
The date of the flyby is now scheduled for 1 January, 2019. To save lots of energy, the spacecraft is presently in hibernation till June. By August it should have woken up and can begin taking pictures of 2014 MU69. These will assist pinpoint the precise path for New Horizons, and guarantee a detailed and secure flyby.
This prolonged mission is a large problem. We’ve by no means tried such a distant flyby, and even much less is understood about 2014 MU69 than was recognized about Pluto. However the rewards promise to be enormous. For the primary time we are going to observe a physique within the outer photo voltaic system close-up. It guarantees to be simply as shocking as Pluto, if no more.