Having just departed the reddish-looking dwarf planet Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is en route to another object that is similarly colored, officials at the US space agency announced earlier this week at an American Astronomical Society conference in Pasadena, California.
In fact, 2014 MU69 – one of 11 Kuiper Belt objects that the probe is scheduled to study over the next several years – is “even redder than Pluto” but “not quite as red as Mars,” according to New Horizons team member Amanda Zangari from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado.
Zangari presented her team’s findings at the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences and European Planetary Science Congress on Tuesday. They determined its color using observations collected by the Hubble Space Telescope, Space.com said, and while the exact size of the estimated 13-25 mile (21-40 km) wide object is not yet determined, it is now the tiniest Kuper Belt object to have its color determined in this way, the SwRI-led team revealed.
Knowing that 2014 MU69 is reddish in color is more than a novelty, Zangrari explained during the conference – it “tells us the type of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 is.” This newfound data “confirms” that when New Horizons completes a flyby of the object on January 1, 2019, it “will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”
Finding suggests that 2014 MU69 is part of the ‘cold classical’ region
During that flyby, the spacecraft will travel to within 1,860 miles (3,000 km) of the 2014 MU69, Space.com said. Thanks to the discovery of its color, scientists now know that they will probably be looking at a member of the Kuiper Belt’s “cold classical” region, which is home to primordial bodies that have undergone little significant change since the birth of the solar system.
Like the red coloring discovered on Pluto and its moon Charon, the reddish hue observed at 2014 MU69 suggests the presence of tholin, Gizmodo noted. Tholin is a type of molecule which forms when organic compounds like methane and ethane are exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Although it does not form naturally on Earth, it is abundant on the icy objects found on the outskirts of the solar system, the website added.
2014 MU69 is located approximately 1.6 billion miles (2.6 billion km) past Pluto, while the New Horizons spacecraft is currently 340 million miles (540 million km) beyond the dwarf planet and 3.4 billion miles (5.5 billion km) from Earth. It is about 600 million miles (nearly one billion km) from its next research target, having covered approximately one-third the distance separating the new target from Pluto, NASA officials confirmed.
The spacecraft is speeding away from the center of the solar system at a velocity of nearly nine miles (14 km) per second, the agency added. To date, it has transmitted roughly 99% of the data from its Pluto encounter back to scientists here on Earth, including possible cloud sightings in its atmosphere. If those observations are confirmed, “it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator at SwRI.
Image credit: NASA