NASA has discovered a moon orbiting MU69, an object located roughly one billion miles past Pluto.
While MU69 may not be the most exciting name, the distant object certainly has astronomers excited due to the space probe New Horizon’s journey towards the mysterious find.
Located in the Kuiper Belt, a disc made up of asteroids, comets, dwarf planets and other bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune, very little is known about MU69. Considering how far out the Kuiper Belt is located, it’s very difficult to obtain any conclusive information about what exactly is out there.
Teams of scientists tried to watch the MU69 pass in front of a star multiple times, but it was difficult to get a decent picture of the far-off object. However, on July 17th of this year, the team was able to take five measurements — and the data placed MU69 about 25 miles away from the expected position. This discovery has major implications in the study of the Kuiper Belt, as it suggests that there’s another object out there attached to MU69. In other words, NASA has discovered a moon.
If there is truly a moon of sorts orbiting MU69, the center of mass between the two objects would be roughly right where they expected MU69 to be. The offset object found in the observations gives credence to the idea that NASA has discovered a moon.
Discovering a Moon
Marc Buie, a member of the New Horizons Science Team, was extremely excited about the new find.
“It’s almost like we have three objects in one here…This is going to have a lot of surprises. We really are going to see something that dates back to the beginnings of the solar system…The Story could change next week, but this is our best understanding now.”
If NASA has discovered a moon, it’s likely a small one. Measuring only 3.1 miles and orbiting just 125-186 miles away from the main body of MU69 (which is only 20 miles across itself), it may orbit every 2-4 weeks.
While it will be a while before we get another glimpse at MU69, scientists will get another chance on August 4, 2018, when the body passes in front of a fainter star. It will be more difficult to observe, but it’s still an opportunity for the research team to learn more about this mysterious object and whether it’s true that NASA has discovered a moon.
In September of 2018, the New Horizons probe will finally get its first glimpse at MU69. At that point, researchers will continue the search to see if this theoretical moon exists — and there may even be more than one.
We have a decent amount of time to wait until we can truly find out if NASA has discovered a moon, but learning more about MU69 will give us a key insight into the area beyond Neptune. With our current limitations, it’s very difficult to gather information on bodies that are that far out. This discovery could be a breakthrough in our understanding of the far reaches of our solar system.