from the Ready,-fire,-aim? dept.
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft changed our view of the outer solar system forever when it flew by Pluto in 2015. Now, it's on its way to the next destination: a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known only as 2014 MU69. Although the spacecraft won't reach its target until New Year's Day in 2019, NASA is already looking ahead to learn as much about 2014 MU69 as possible, thanks to a convenient temporary alignment that recently allowed the object to pass in front of a background star.
[...] "This effort, spanning six months, three spacecraft, 24 portable ground-based telescopes, and NASA's SOFIA airborne observatory was the most challenging stellar occultation in the history of astronomy, but we did it!" said Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission principal investigator, in a press release. "We spied the shape and size of 2014 MU69 for the first time, a Kuiper Belt scientific treasure we will explore just over 17 months from now. Thanks to this success we can now plan the upcoming flyby with much more confidence."
The physical characteristics of 2014 MU69 are still unclear. It is estimated to have a diameter between 18 and 41 km, but may be composed of multiple objects.
Images taken by NASA's New Horizons mission on its way to Pluto, and now the Kuiper Belt, have given scientists an unexpected tool for measuring the brightness of all the galaxies in the universe, said a Rochester Institute of Technology researcher in a paper published this week in Nature Communications.
[...] "This result shows some of the promise of doing astronomy from the outer solar system," Zemcov said. "What we're seeing is that the optical background is completely consistent with the light from galaxies and we don't see a need for a lot of extra brightness; whereas previous measurements from near the Earth need a lot of extra brightness. The study is proof that this kind of measurement is possible from the outer solar system, and that LORRI is capable of doing it." Spacecraft in the outer solar system give scientists virtual front-row seats for observing the cosmic optical background. The faint light from distant galaxies is hard to see from the inner solar system because it is polluted by the brightness of sunlight reflected off interplanetary dust in the inner solar system.
Measurement of the cosmic optical background using the long range reconnaissance imager on New Horizons (open, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15003) (DX)
New Horizons' highest-resolution camera, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), has imaged details as small as 600 feet (183 meters) in diameter on Pluto's surface; however, on MU69, it will be able to resolve details down to a diameter of 230 feet (70 meters).
"We're planning to fly closer to MU69 than to Pluto to get even higher resolution imagery and other datasets. The science should be spectacular," emphasized mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
[...] Observations of the KBO conducted in July when it passed in front of a star suggest that it could be a binary system composed of two objects or a single object with two lobes.
The International Astronomical Union has announced names for 14 features (such as craters, valleys, and mountain ranges) on Pluto:
These include Tombaugh Regio for the "heart" feature on Pluto's surface, Sputnik Planitia for the icy plain on the left side of the heart, Burney crater for a crater west of the heart, Voyager Terra for a region northwest of the heart, and several more.
[...] "The approved designations honor many people and space missions who paved the way for the historic exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the farthest worlds ever explored," Stern said.
The next flyby target of the New Horizons mission (the first spacecraft to visit Pluto) is 2014 MU69. NASA is asking the public to help name it. The name(s) are unlikely to be submitted to the International Astronomical Union before the flyby on January 1, 2019, because scientists are still unsure if 2014 MU69 consists of one or more objects.
To prevent a Boaty McBoatface redux, the New Horizons team is allowing you to pick from a number of options or submit your own name for consideration by December 1st. The poll is only to gauge support; they will decide which name(s) to submit to the IAU (which could also reject the name(s)). And the binary (trinary?) status of 2014 MU69 is likely to affect the name(s) chosen. The names currently being considered are:
- Año Nuevo ("New Year" in Spanish)
- Camalor (fictional city in the Kuiper Belt)
- Chomolungma, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest in Tibet and Nepal)
- Kibo, Mawenzi, Shira (peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro)
- Mjölnir (Thor's hammer)
- Pangu (from Chinese mythology, emerged from yin and yang)
- Peanut, Almond, Cashew (shapes for small bodies)
- Pluck & Persistence (traits of New Horizons)
- Sagittarius (constellation behind MU69/mythical centaur)
- Uluru (Ayers Rock, largest rock on Earth, an "island mountain")
- Z'ha'dum (fictional planet at the edge of the galaxy)
Also at CNET.
Sometime after January 2019, New Horizons, the spacecraft that brought us photos of the heart-shaped terrain on Pluto, will turn back toward Earth. The probe's camera, the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI for short, will start snapping away. Nearly three decades after the original, humanity will get another "Pale Blue Dot."
"We've been talking about it for years," says Andy Cheng of the plan to take another 'Pale Blue Dot' image. Cheng is a scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and the principal investigator for LORRI.
It's a risky move. The attempt requires pointing LORRI close enough to the sun so that objects in the darkness are illuminated, but not so close that sunlight damages or destroys the camera. "But we're going to do it anyway, for the same reason as before," Cheng says. "It's just such a great thing to try."
The photo shoot will take considerable coordination. "All activities on the spacecraft need to be choreographed in elaborate detail and then checked and checked again," Cheng says. "Taking a LORRI image involves more than just LORRI—the spacecraft needs to point the camera in the right direction, lorri needs to be operated, the image data needs to be put in the right place and then accessed and transmitted to Earth, which requires more maneuvers of the spacecraft, all of which needs to happen on a spacecraft almost 4 billion miles away."
New Horizons will fly by 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019. It will take about 18 months to send back all the data from the flyby.
NASA's New Horizons team will again attempt observations of a stellar occultation of 2014 MU69, provisionally nicknamed Ultima Thule. Previous observations made when the object passed in front of a background star suggested that it was a contact binary and may have a small moon:
The goal is to learn as much as possible about 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, which New Horizons will zoom past on Jan. 1, 2019. "This occultation will give us hints about what to expect at Ultima Thule and help us refine our flyby plans," New Horizons occultation-event leader Marc Buie, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.
This is not the mission team's first shadow rodeo. Last summer, scientists traveled to Argentina and South Africa for occultation observations; the Argentina crew hit the jackpot, gathering data that helped set the planned flyby distance at 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers).
[...] Ultima Thule lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto, which New Horizons famously flew by in July 2015. Scientists think Ultima Thule is about 20 miles (32 km) across if it's a single object; if it's two bodies, each component is probably 9 miles to 12 miles (15 to 21 km) long.