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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Ancient water world: Tectonics on Pluto’s moon Charon point to frozen subsurface ocean

Charon (upper left) and Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon is Pluto’s largest moon and, despite being so cold and remote from the Sun, has been revealed to be a fascinating and active world, just like Pluto itself. Residing in the far outskirts of the Solar System, it had been expected that Charon – and Pluto for that matter – would be little more than frozen, dead worlds. But just like the rest of the Solar System, there were surprises waiting to be found. Thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft, we got our first close-up views of the Pluto system in July 2015. It soon became evident that not only were Pluto and Charon geologically active in the ancient past, but they perhaps still are in some ways even now. One of the most surprising findings was both Pluto and Charon likely had subsurface water oceans; while it is thought that Pluto’s is probably still liquid, Charon’s is likely completely frozen, and now additional evidence for its existence has been published by researchers.

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‘Cracked and tipped over’ Pluto has a subsurface ocean: New evidence from New Horizons

View of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto. This vast region of nitrogen ice provides clues that a subsurface ocean of liquid water exists on Pluto. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
View of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto. This vast region of nitrogen ice provides clues that a subsurface ocean of liquid water exists on Pluto. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto, a tiny frigid world in the distant outskirts of the Solar System, has been full of surprises, as first revealed by the New Horizons spacecraft back in July 2015. Expected to be mostly a cold, geologically dead place, it has instead been shown to be quite the opposite. Yes, it’s bitterly cold of course, but New Horizons found ample evidence that it has also been geologically active in the past and in some ways still is. With tall mountains of solid water ice, ancient riverbeds carved by nitrogen rivers, vast plains, still-flowing glaciers of nitrogen ice, and possible ice volcanoes, Pluto is a wondrous world indeed. Another new finding makes it even more remarkable: evidence for a subsurface ocean of water. This had also been reported on previously by AmericaSpace, but the new update strengthens the case.

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