New Horizons might fly by additional KBO after MU69

BY LAUREL KORNFELD | PUBLISHED: 09-14-2017

That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.

Now speeding toward its second flyby target, Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69, NASA's New Horizons probe may have sufficient fuel to allow it a third target.

The spacecraft is now in an extended mission approved in 2016, which will take it within just 2,175 miles (3,500 km) of the small KBO, located about one billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto, on January 1, 2019.
Principal Investigator Alan Stern told NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) on September 6 that the probe has a "fighting chance" of visiting yet another target after MU69.

Discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014, MU69 is estimated to have a diameter of about 31 miles (50 km). Until the KBO occulted three separate stars within several weeks in June and July, little was known about it other than its brightness and color.

That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.

MU69 may be far more complex than scientists anticipated.

"What we expected, of course, was just an ellipsoid. What we got looks either like a double-lobed object or two objects--a binary--orbiting one another that just happen to be overlapping at the time of this event," Stern said.

MU69 also appeared far less bright than expected, indicating its appearance does not seem to change as it rotates.

If this is true, New Horizons might be able to spare fuel that would have otherwise been used to make flyby adjustments to observe the KBO's various cross sections.

That fuel could then go toward redirecting the spacecraft to yet another, more distant KBO.

"We are currently searching for new, close flyby targets, and we have some very promising techniques" for finding them, Stern noted.

How much fuel will be used during the MU69 flyby also depends on whether debris is found near the KBO. Finding it could compel mission engineers to take an alternate route, bringing the spacecraft no more than 6,214 miles (10,000 km) from the object.

That would still be closer than the 2015 Pluto flyby, in which the probe's closest approach was at a distance of 7,767 miles (12,500 km).

While it flies through the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is also taking distant images of other dwarf planets, small KBOs, and centaurs. The latter are hybrid objects that have features of both asteroids and comets and are usually found between Saturn and Uranus.

On Monday, September 11, the spacecraft was woken up from a five-month hibernation for tests of its science instruments and an upload of new software.

Actual MU69 flyby operations will begin in August 2018.

 

 

 

 

Comments
Laurel Kornfeld - Sep 19, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.
Laurel Kornfeld - Sep 19, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.
Wilson Soto - Sep 19, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.
Dan Taylor - Sep 19, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.
Laurel Kornfeld - Sep 18, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.
Joseph Scalise - Sep 18, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.
Joyce Clark - Sep 16, 2017
That changed with the final occultation in July, when mission scientists successfully obtained data about the object's shape from observing the event in Patagonia, Argentina, with portable telescopes.