JUL 20, 2017 05:59 AM PDT

NASA Scientists Spot Occultation Caused by a Future New Horizons Target

New Horizons made history when it completed the primary goal of flying past Pluto in 2015, but the probe is far from finished exploring. Last year, NASA decided a distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) dubbed 2014 MU69 would become the probe’s next flyby target, and scientists are eager to use this flyby to learn more about objects in the Kuiper Belt.

An artist's impression of New Horizons flying past KBO 2014 MU69.

Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

In three separate observations, scientists from NASA’s New Horizons team set out to find 2014 MU69 by way of ground-based mobile telescopes. To spot it, they were taking advantage of a phenomenon known as an occultation, which is when the KBO passes in front of a distant star and causes the light from that distant star to disappear momentarily.

On Sunday, July 17th, NASA scientists got lucky and spotted what they were looking for in their third observation. After setting up their telescopes in Argentina and focusing them all on one region of the sky, they successfully captured the occultation caused by 2014 MU69.

In the video below, you can see how the star in the middle of the frame seems to “disappear” from view for a fraction of a second; 2014 MU69 caused this to happen by obstructing our line of sight with the unnamed star.

Related: These KBOs tell us Neptune's formation was smoother than originally thought

Although these tiny telescopes can’t get the close-up details we’d expect from a probe flyby, scientists can still use these observations to determine 2014 MU69’s color, size, and whether it has any satellites; these are pressing mysteries that scientists want to solve.

Knowing these details ahead of time can better prepare NASA for the flyby. For example, New Horizons' NASA will need to adjust New Horizons' imaging equipment for more exposure if 2014 MU69 has a darker surface; conversely, the imaging equipment will be configured with less exposure if 2014 MU69 has a lighter surface.

The local Argentinian community worked closely with the scientists to make the observations possible. Major highways were shut down, street lights were turned off, and large freight trucks were parked around the crew to block out light that could interfere with the research.

New Horizons will fly past 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019, providing humanity with the first-ever close-up images of a Kuiper Belt Object. 2014 MU69 will also become the most distant object ever observed by any spacecraft.

There are indeed exciting times ahead in space exploration. We can't wait to see what becomes of the research as a whole.

Source: NASA

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
AUG 19, 2018
Space & Astronomy
AUG 19, 2018
Lockheed Martin Shows Off Deep-Space Habitation Module Concept
There’s more to deep-space missions than merely launching astronauts into outer space and saying “good luck!” The eventual goal necessita...
SEP 09, 2018
Space & Astronomy
SEP 09, 2018
The End of NASA's Dawn Mission is Rapidly Approaching
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft ventured away from Earth to study other bodies in the Solar System 11 years ago; that’s three years longer than anyone e...
OCT 02, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 02, 2018
NASA's Kepler Space Telescope Enters Sleep Mode to Preserve Data
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope earned a reputation for being quite the capable exoplanet hunter, but after all these years of memorable service to the...
OCT 14, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 14, 2018
NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory Enters Safe Mode for Unknown Reasons
A little more than a week ago, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope started exhibiting wonky gyroscope data consistent with a mechanical failure. Consequent...
OCT 24, 2018
Space & Astronomy
OCT 24, 2018
NASA's Parker Solar Probe Snaps a Picture of Earth
Back in August, a Delta IV Heavy rocket ignited its engines and lofted NASA’s highly-anticipated Parker Solar Probe into space. Just over one month l...
NOV 06, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 06, 2018
Here's Where NASA Will Land its Martian InSight Mission Later This Month
In May, an Atlas V rocket blasted off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and lofted NASA’s InSight mission into space so that it could...
Loading Comments...