Stellar occultations by KBO 2014 MU69 will give scientists crucial data

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Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering the distant Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI / Steve Gribben

Members of NASA’s New Horizons team will have three opportunities to obtain crucial data regarding 2014 MU69 – the mission’s second target – when the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) occults three different stars within the next few weeks.

Located more than four billion miles (6.44 billion kilometers) from Earth, about a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, 2014 MU69 will occult, or pass directly in front of, three different stars within the next few weeks on June 3, July 10, and July 17.

Although the small KBO will block each of the stars’ light for (at most) two seconds, observing the event will provide mission scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to obtain crucial data about it, including its size, shape, orbit, and reflectivity.

Little is known about 2014 MU69 – including its orbit – because it was discovered just three years ago during a search for a second New Horizons flyby target.

New Horizons mission scientists and engineers had nearly seven years to plan the 2015 Pluto encounter but will have, at most, two years to plan this one – scheduled for January 1, 2019.

“We were only able to start planning the MU69 encounter after we flew by Pluto in 2015,” said Carly Howett of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), deputy principal investigator of the spacecraft’s Ralph instrument. “That gives us two years, instead of almost seven years we had to plan the Pluto encounter. So it’s a very different, and in many ways, more challenging flyby to plan.”

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that so little is known about the target object.

To take advantage of the opportunities provided by the occultations, scientists are setting up both portable and stationary telescopes along the projected paths of 2014 MU69‘s shadow.

Over 50 scientists plan to observe the June 3 occultation from areas along the path in Argentina and South Africa by turning telescopes equipped with cameras at multiple locations.

A total of 22 16-inch (40-centimeter) portable telescopes and more than 24 fixed location telescopes will be spaced every six to 18 miles (10 to 25 km) along the shadow’s most likely path across the Earth to maximize the chances of one or more successful observations.

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