The Pluto flyby was arguably one of 2015’s top scientific achievements, maybe even one of the most memorable moments in the last decade. We now know what our ex-ninth planet looks like, and it’s spectacular. Pluto turned out to have some surprising features like glaciers, nitrogen lakes, ice volcanoes, and the list is growing. The New Horizons mission to Pluto has surpassed everyone’s expectations, and the good news is, the team has no plans of stopping yet. This summer, they’re hoping to win an extended mission to explore another strange new world.
2014 MU69 is the official name of the icy rock that New Horizons hopes to explore next. Not much is known about MU69, but it orbits the sun a billion miles past Pluto, and NASA thinks it could be a time capsule from the earliest days of our solar system.
MU69 is one of several types of objects (or KBOs) in the Kuiper Belt–the ring of rock and ice debris that encircles our solar system. “Scattered KBOs,” like the dwarf planet Eris, were flung outward by the influence of Neptune, explaining their highly elliptical orbits. “Resonant objects” like Pluto are locked in a stable orbit with Neptune. MU69, on the other hand, is a “cold classical object,” meaning it has gone relatively undisturbed since the beginning of the solar system.
The Kuiper Belt in general, and the cold classical objects especially, are the most primordial objects,” explains Simon Porter, post-doctoral researcher on the New Horizons mission. “They were never pushed around by the giant planets; they’re pretty much where they formed and haven’t been disturbed except for occasionally bumping into each other.”
The term “cold classical” doesn’t actually refer to the temperature of the objects, but rather that their orbits don’t bring them close to anything else.
Humankind has never visited a cold classical object before, so this flyby, if it gets funded, could be huge for filling in gaps about how our solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago.
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