There’s A Blurry Thing A Billion Miles Past Pluto, And Scientists Hope To Spot Its Shadow From Earth

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Photo: MU69
A sequence of images, cleaned of cosmic rays and other image artifacts, shows 2014 MU69.

New Horizons, the spacecraft that snapped the first close-up pictures of Pluto in 2015, is heading for a new target. Known as 2014 MU69, it's an object in the Kuiper Belt a billion miles past Pluto. It's so far away that pictures taken with the powerful Hubble Space Telescope show just a blurry glow.

Photo:New Horizons and Next Target
Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt.

Next week dozens of astronomers are being dispatched by NASA to Africa and South America for the rare chance to catch a glimpse of MU69 from Earth. The astronomers won't actually see the object itself, but hope to spot its shadow as it traverses a distant star.

Doug Duncan, director of the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, will be among them. He explains that astronomers will use telescopes and cameras to measure the brief shadow and then calculate MU69's size. They might also be able to tell whether it has a moon, and possibly its shape, which may not be round. Duncan spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Photo: New Horizons location in April
This graphic shows the location of New Horizons in early April, as it flies towards its rendezvous with 2014 MU69, which is expected in January 2019.