Pluto and beyond: New Horizons’ next Kuiper Belt rendezvous only one year away

Artist’s conception of 2014 MU69. New Horizons will reach this next target on Jan. 1, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

Happy New Year! As well as simply the start of a new year, today also marks another significant date – exactly one year from now, the New Horizons spacecraft will encounter its next target deep in the Kuiper Belt, much farther out than Pluto. On Jan. 1, 2019, New Horizons will fly past another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69. This will be the most distant object to ever be visited by a spacecraft in our Solar System so far.

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As New Horizons speeds toward next target, new data suggests 2014 MU69 may have a moon

Artist’s conception of 2014 MU69 as a binary object with a moon, during flyby of New Horizons in 2019. MU69 is the next target of New Horizons in January 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It has been nearly two-and-a-half years now since New Horizons sped past Pluto and its moons in July 2015, and now the spacecraft is starting to close in on its next target – another object in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69. It lies a billion miles farther out from the Sun than Pluto, and little is still known about it, but the closer New Horizons gets, with a scheduled flyby for Jan. 1, 2019, the more scientists are starting to learn about what it looks like. The newest research indicates that, despite being so small, much smaller than Pluto, it may also have a moon.

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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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