As New Horizons is approaching its latest target, scientists suspect that they might discover a new moon orbiting it. The object, known as 486958 2014 MU69, is located in the Kuiper Belt. This is a vast expanse of rocky objects orbiting the Sun beyond Pluto’s orbit.
— NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) December 12, 2017
MU69, Likely to Be Hiding a Moon
Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission principal investigator, noted that this latest target will be the most primitive and pristine thing that a human craft has reached until now.
According to calculations, MU69 seems to be a massive rock, shaped vaguely like a peanut. However, some of the current findings bring this into doubt. So the mission team is hoping that the probe will be able to clear up these issues during its next scheduled flyby. This has already been set for January 1, 2019.
In their presentation at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting, the research team explained that they have detected an occultation around the distant body.
Such an event occurs when one object is blocking another from view. For example, when scientists cannot detect a star properly because a Kuiper Belt object is between it and our planet.
The theory is that the occultation may be from some sort of moon, or “moonlet,” that orbits around MU69. This would be an interesting find, given that the object is not currently classified as any sort of planet.
Another theory is that this distant object is not only hiding a moon, but rather two objects. These could be locked in what is called a contact binary—orbiting each other closely enough to touch.
That would help explain MU69’s unusual shape, but researchers will not know for sure until they get a closer look.
New Horizons has previously explored Pluto, providing a wealth of previously unknown data about the dwarf planet, so hopefully, it can help here, too.
NASA will announce a placeholder name for the object, chosen from among public suggestions, in January.
Image Source: Wikimedia