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Posted on August 1st, 2017

Reaching Orbit – New Horizons and New Frontiers

This July, NASA is celebrating the one year anniversary of New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto, before it rocketed deeper into space. Since its highly publicized pass over of Pluto and its moon, Charon, scientists have received an immense amount of data that they are still sifting through.

From this data we’ve seen models, charts and images breaking down Pluto’s composition and structure. NASA recently released a fascinating fly-over video of Pluto and Charon using digital elevation models and images captured by New Horizon.

Fly-over video of Pluto, created using data from the New Horizons mission. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Paul Schenk and John Blackwell, Lunar and Planetary Institute)
Take a flight over Serenity Chasma on Pluto’s moon Charon. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Paul Schenk and John Blackwell, Lunar and Planetary Institute)

New Horizon scientists still have a lot of data to troll through. In the midst of this research, they are looking forward to the next milestone in the New Horizon mission, a flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69. Nearly a billion miles from the Sun, the spacecraft won’t reach the object until January of 2019.

The Kuiper Belt extends between Neptune and far past Pluto, consisting of comets and large icy bodies as well as dwarf planets, similar to Pluto. It is believed that Kuiper Belt Objects are left over from the creation of the solar system. Unlike planets and asteroids, that have undergone transformation and intense heat, KBOs are frozen in space, with little exposure to the Sun’s rays. Like a fossil, they can show us what the solar system looked like 4.6 billion years ago. KBOs are too far away and too small to accurately measure their size and composition.

Hubble managed to get an image of the KBO in 2014, leading to its selection as New Horizon’s next mission objective. On July 17th, mission scientists undertook a long and laborious journey to Argentina, in hopes of getting a glimpse of 2014 MU69 through occultation. When light is blocked by another object, obscuring the light source from view, this is called an occultation; an eclipse is a perfect example of this phenomenon. For objects much further away than the Sun, an occultation looks like a star that’s flickered out then reappears again.

Scientist trekked out to a remote area near Santa Cruz, Argentina in cold and windy conditions. Armed with 24 telescopes and an impressive amount of local support, five of the telescopes managed to capture the occultation. The data obtained from this observation, as well as other joint research initiatives with Argentina and South Africa, paves the way for the pass-over attempt in 2019. 2014 MU69 will be the most distant object observed by spacecraft, unveiling the history of our solar system.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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