A Hidden Moon For A Distant Mini-World?

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

or, what’s a heaven for?

“Andrea del Sarto”, Robert Browning

We are an inquisitive species. For all of our human flaws, one of our more admirable traits is our need to explore–to go where no one has ever gone before, to see what no one has ever seen before. This distant hum of singing Sirens perpetually haunts our dreams, tantalizing our imaginations, luring us into regions of distant, frigid darkness–far, far away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has now left Pluto and its quintet of moons behind, and is well on its way to explore more distant regions of the Kuiper Belt, where a vast multitude of icy worldlets swim in a mysterious sea of everlasting twilight. In August 2015, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), with the lengthy name of (486958) 2014 MU69, was chosen as New Horizons’ next target of exploration–and this enchanting little world, that does its mesmerizing dance in our Solar System’s frigid Twilight Zone, is now whispering to us some of its well-kept secrets. 2014 MU69 may have a hidden moon all its own!

Astronomers are already anticipating that something exciting will be revealed to them when New Horizons finally reaches little 2014 MU69 in 2019, after sailing through the darkness of our Solar System’s most remote region of ice–that has, up until now, been entirely unexplored. This little KBO twirls around our Star a billion miles past Pluto–and it could possibly be shaped like a peanut or–alternatively–it could really be a duo of objects orbiting around one another (binary). Now, more recent data hints that another possibility might explain some of 2014 MU69’s newly-observed odd attributes. It may have company.

The KBO’s company, according to the latest theory–coming courtesy of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft–is a tiny, frigid, and very well-hidden moon, that is enshrouded in the distant darkness of interplanetary space, far from the light and heat of our Sun. Meanwhile, New Horizons continues to explore, and then analyze, telescope data that it is gathering about this icy target of its planned New Year’s Day 2019 flyby. “We really won’t know what MU69 looks like until we fly past it, or even gain a full understanding of it until after the encounter. But even from afar, the more we examine it, the more interesting and amazing this little world becomes,” commented Dr. Marc Buie in a December 11, 2017 Johns Hopkins University: Pluto Press Release. Dr. Buie, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, presented this updated analysis at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU’s) Fall 2017 held in New Orleans.

2014 MU69 was discovered by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) on June 26, 2014. This irregularly shaped distant denizen of our Solar System’s dark deep freeze is a classical KBO that has previously been suspected of being a contact binary, or even a close binary system. It measures approximately 30 kilometers in diameter.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006, with the original goal of exploring the distant Pluto system.


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