With Pluto in its rearview mirror, the New Horizons spacecraft is zipping towards a more far-out object. But it’s not flying blind. Using ground-based telescopes, the New Horizons team has spotted its next destination eclipsing a distant star. The event will reveal the rock’s specs in advance of the spacecraft’s visit in a year and a half.
The object, called 2014 MU69, lives in the Kuiper Belt more than 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth. Members of the New Horizons team calculated that they would be able to see its shadow from the southern tip of Argentina just past midnight local time on July 17 as MU69 eclipsed (or occulted) a star.
So the team deployed a fleet of 24 16-inch-wide telescopes across the region to make sure the object didn’t slip past unseen.
“At least five of them caught the shadow — which is more than I expected!” said team member Alex Parker of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., on Twitter. This is the fifth time the team has seen MU69 eclipse a star, and the first from this remote site.
New Horizons visited Pluto in 2015 and will fly by MU69 on January 1, 2019. The space rock will be the most distant solar system object ever visited. Details of the occultation will reveal MU69’s size, shape, orbit and environment, helping the team plan its observations.
“This effort…was the most challenging stellar occultation in the history of astronomy, but we did it!” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in a statement.