New Horizons team successfully observes transit of next KBO target, and clouds on Pluto!

Four members of the South African observation team, who helped to track the occultation of a star by the KBO called 2014 MU69, the next target for the New Horizons spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Henry Throop

With the Pluto flyby now well behind them, the New Horizons team has been busy preparing for the next encounter, the small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69. New Horizons is scheduled to fly past 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019, and it will be the farthest Solar System body to ever be visited so far. From June 2-3, astronomers in Argentina and South Africa pointed their telescopes at 2014 MU69, hoping to catch its “shadow” moving across a background star as it transited the star (also known as a stellar occultation). This would help determine the object’s exact size and allow the mission team to fine-tune the planned flyby. Back at Pluto, there is more evidence, from data gathered by New Horizons during the flyby, for clouds in Pluto’s thin atmosphere.

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New Horizons reaches halfway point between Pluto and next KBO target

New Horizons is now halfway from Pluto to its next destination – the KBO known as 2014 MU69, which it will reach on Jan. 1, 2019 (artist’s conception). Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It may not seem like it, but it is approaching two years now since New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto and its moons in July 2015. But even though it has been quiet since then, the mission continues, as the spacecraft is now preparing for its next flyby of another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – and now New Horizons has reached the halfway point between Pluto and the next target, called 2014 MU69. It’s another major milestone for a mission that gave us our first close-up views of the Pluto system, and revealed worlds utterly alien and unique in the Solar System.

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New Horizons completes another course adjustment in preparation for 2019 flyby of next KBO

Artist’s conception of New Horizons approaching 2014 MU69 in 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Steve Gribben

Long after its incredible encounter with Pluto and its moons in 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft is continuing its journey deeper into the Kuiper Belt in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Mission scientists and engineers are now preparing for its next close flyby, of a smaller body called 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019. Along the way, New Horizons makes occasional slight course corrections to keep it on track, and now the spacecraft has just successfully completed its latest one.

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New Horizons obtains new images and science data of post-Pluto Kuiper Belt Object

Image from New Horizons showing the small KBO called 1994 JR1, taken in April 2016. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Image from New Horizons showing the small KBO called 1994 JR1, taken in April 2016. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The New Horizons mission to Pluto has been nothing less than incredible, giving us our first close-up views of this enigmatic dwarf planet and its moons. But the show isn’t over yet, as the New Horizons team is now planning for its next encounter with another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in 2019. But even before then, the spacecraft has been busy observing other smaller objects, and has now collected the first science data on one of them, called 1994 JR1.

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Is ‘Planet 9’ really a second massive Kuiper Belt?

The Kuiper Belt is a massive collection of dwarf planet and asteroid-sized worlds orbiting far past Neptune. Is the hypothetical Planet 9 really a second such belt? Image Credit: T. Pyle (SSC)/JPL-Caltech/NASA
The Kuiper Belt is a massive collection of dwarf planet and asteroid-sized worlds orbiting far past Neptune. Is the hypothetical Planet 9 really a second such belt? Image Credit: T. Pyle (SSC)/JPL-Caltech/NASA

The announcement of a possible large ninth planet in our Solar System way beyond Neptune last month caused a lot of excitement, needless to say. If confirmed, it may be similar to “super-Earth” type exoplanets which have been found to be plentiful around other stars, although none, that we knew of, around ours. At this point, however, it is still a well-presented theory. Now, there’s another possibility which has been offered to explain the weird orbits of some of the small Kuiper Belt objects – not a large planet, but rather a second Kuiper Belt consisting of many smaller objects instead.

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