NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in 2015, will encounter the most primitive and most distant object in the history of space exploration, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in 2019. New Horizons’ next mission — the Kuiper Belt object, referred to as MU69 — is an icy world billion of kilometres past Pluto and more than 6.5 billion km from Earth. Its encounter with MU69, which was discovered in 2014, will offer the first close-up look at such a pristine building block of the solar system, and will be performed in a region of deep space that was practically unknown just a generation ago. “We invite everyone to ring in the next year with the excitement of exploring the unknown,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. “Our flyby of MU69 on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2019 will be an exciting sequel to the historic exploration New Horizons performed at Pluto in 2015,” added Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado.
“Nothing even like MU69 has ever been explored before,” Stern said. Previous observations indicated that MU69 could be two objects, perhaps accompanied by a moon. New Horizons will fly about three times closer to MU69 than it did to Pluto in July 2015, allowing the spacecraft’s cameras to provide a more detailed look at the object’s surface.
The spacecraft’s vantage point from about 2,175 miles (3,500 km) from MU69 will allow it spot details about the size of a basketball court. “Combining images with the measurements we make of the composition of and environment around MU69, should teach us a great deal about objects like MU69 that built dwarf planets like Pluto,” Hal Weaver, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland.
The MU69 flyby is the centerpiece of the current New Horizons extended mission that also includes observations of more than two-dozen other Kuiper Belt objects as well as measurements of the plasma, gas and dust environment of the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons is currently in hibernation until June 4, post which in in mid-August, it will begin the MU69 encounter.