NASA is sending the space probe New Horizons to an extremely unusual red object far beyond the orbit of Pluto.
Dubbed 2014 MU69, the object has a diameter of about 30 miles and orbits the sun once every 293 years. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope discovered 2014 MU69 during a preliminary survey to find a suitable object for the New Horizons probe to fly by in 2019.
“The reddish color tells us the type of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 is,” Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons post-doctoral researcher from Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA press statement. “The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”
New Horizons is currently 3.4 billion miles from Earth and about 340 million miles beyond Pluto. It is speeding away from the sun at a rate of about nine miles every second — 2014 MU69 is about a billion miles beyond Pluto.
“We’re excited about the exploration ahead for New Horizons, and also about what we are still discovering from Pluto flyby data,” Dr. Alan Stern, the probe’s principal investigator and a professor at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, said in the press statement. “Now, with our spacecraft transmitting the last of its data from last summer’s flight through the Pluto system, we know that the next great exploration of Pluto will require another mission to be sent there.”
Astronomers announced the discovery earlier this month of another new dwarf planet orbiting the sun in the region beyond Pluto. The new dwarf planet, dubbed 2014 UZ224, is more than 8.5 billion miles from the sun and has a diameter of about 330 miles.
It took astronomers two years to confirm the detection of 2014 UZ224, which could be the third most-distant object in the solar system. There are currently four other recognized dwarf planets in the solar system, but NASA suspects there could be over 100 such objects that haven’t yet been discovered.
Astronomers believe that a much larger “Planet X,” about 10 times the size of Earth could lie at the outer edge of our solar system. Such a planet would explain several extremely unusually phenomena, potentially including the mysterious backwards orbiting of the dwarf planet Niku. Some scientists believe “Planet X’s” gravity may be tugging on NASA’s Cassini probe orbiting Saturn. No one has ever obtained any direct evidence of the planet.
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