Science

NASA flies plane through Earthly shadow of Kuiper Belt object

2014 MU69 is New Horizons' next stop and this is a way to get an early look

By Simon Sharwood

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NASA has flown a plane through shadow of Kuiper Belt object 6.6bn kilometres from Earth.

The object is 2014 MU69, a maybe-40km-across more than 1.5bn km past Pluto that is the New Horizons mission's next port of call after its encounter with Pluto. Humanity has precisely zero close-up experience of such objects and we've only seen 2014 MU69 from afar. So in order to give us a bit more to work with before New Horizons' arrival, NASA has used the Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Gaia observatory to figure out when 2014 MU69 will next pass in front of a sun.

NASA possesses a modified Boeing 747 SP known as SOFIA – the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – which packs a 2.5 meter telescope. When SOFIA reaches its working altitude of between 39,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level, above most of the clouds and water vapour in the atmosphere, the 'scope can capture data that's hard to get on the ground. To do so, SOFIA opens a special door in the rear of its fuselage so the instrument doesn't have to peer through the plane's skin.

The space agency's plan was to fly SOFIA through the shadow on Monday, in the hope that we could learn of “rings or other debris that may orbit MU69” and pose a risk for New Horizons.

That plan went off without a hitch: after departing New Zealand, NASA says “The team onboard SOFIA was able to position the flying telescope precisely where the data … indicated the center of the shadow would be, at precisely the right time.”

SOFIA did the same job for Pluto in 2011. The agency hasn't explained the size of the shadow it chased, but says it was 100 times smaller than Pluto's!

There's no word yet on what we've learned about 2014 MU69, but the plane only touched down on Tuesday. So enough with the conspiracy theories, okay? At least until January 1st 2019, when New Horizons arrives at 2014 MU69. ®

BOOTNOTE: In other Space news, the Juno probe has successfully flown over Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Images are expected to arrive in coming days.

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