The next stop for NASA’s New Horizons probe, a spacecraft on a mission to explore areas of space not yet seen by astronomers, may be hiding a mysterious mini “moonlet.” Strange signals from distant body MU69 alerted astronomers to the small moon.
The MU69 will be te furthest point ever explored by a human-built satellite, and an upcoming flyby could confirm the moonlet theory.
New Horizon has chalked up quite a few achievements since its launch in 2006. In 2015, it famously passed by Pluto, beaming back a goldmine of data for scientists to comb. Earlier this year, NASA released a video of Pluto’s surface captured by the New Horizons flyby.
The “centerpiece” of the mission now, however, will be the MU69 flyby. New Horizons will pass by the ancient object on New Year’s Day 2019. Known in full as (486958) 2014 MU69, this large, peanut-shaped hunk of rock is nestled in the distant Kuiper Belt.
“Besides being the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, this flyby is also going to the most primitive and pristine object ever explored,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator, at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
The team suspects that this bulbous rock is orbited by a tiny moon. Wierd occultation signals point to a small body in orbit around MU69.
“An occultation occurs when an object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer—like a small Kuiper Belt object passing in front of a star as seen from Earth,” the research team explained in their presentation.
Flying close to the rock itself will clear up the source of these signals—a new moonlet, erroneous results, or something else entirely.
NASA’s New Horizons tweeted the good news during the conference.
Bulbous peanut or separate hunks of rock
During the 2019 flyby, astronomers will also be able to solve the mystery of MU69’s bizarre shape. Most earth-based observations predict a peanut-shaped rock. Viewed from a particular angle, however, MU69 appears to be made up of two separate objects.
“We really won’t know what MU69 looks like until we fly past it, or even gain a full understanding of it until after the encounter,” said New Horizons science team member Marc Buie in a NASA press release.
As the current label more awkward than the shape itself, NASA asked the public to rename (486958) 2014 MU69. Nominations have sadly closed, but you can look out for the new name in January 2018.
Pictures: Mysterious “moonlet”