NASA is going beyond Pluto

NASA is going beyond Pluto

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft has taken robotic space exploration to the very outer regions of our solar system, and on July 15, 2015, it gave us our first close-up look of a completely new type of planet — an ice world. And, boy, were we surprised.

We saw a world that is dynamic and mysterious. We discovered that Pluto, 4.67 billion miles from Earth, is a world with glaciers made of solidified nitrogen (you are breathing nitrogen right now), mountains of water ice (the largest ice cubes in the solar system), plains covered by a thick layer of organic goo (it’s still unclear exactly what that is), an atmosphere with structures unlike anything seen elsewhere in the solar system, and even evidence of an interior ocean of liquid water. There’s some evidence for climatic changes that occurred over hundreds of thousands of years. And that’s just a sampling of the many discoveries made during the spacecraft’s flyby of that planet.


We should have learned this lesson well by now: The universe is always more complex, more diverse, and more bizarre than anything we can imagine or predict.


And it’s not over for New Horizons. The spacecraft is now on its way to another distant world, 972 million miles beyond Pluto, still called by its discovery designation of 2014MU69 — or just MU69 by its close friends. 

On Jan. 1, 2019 the spacecraft will fly by MU69, and we have little idea what we will find. MU69 is small, less than 50 miles across, and dark like charcoal. There is some evidence it has a strange shape. It may even be two smaller objects in a tight orbit around each other.

Does MU69 have active geology? We don’t think so because it is so small. Does it have an atmosphere? Probably not, for the same reason. MU69’s importance lies in a different field of science, and that is the study of origins.  

We have strong reasons to believe that MU69 is very, very old. It might be as old as the Earth. But unlike the Earth, whose surface is continually being modified by water and weather, MU69 has not changed since it was formed 4.56 billion years ago. That makes MU69 a treasure chest in the study of origins. MU69 will hold clues to what our solar system was like during the time period when the planets were forming. In fact, it may be an example of the very type of objects that formed the planets. 

Those of us who are interested in how planets form will study the results of the New Horizons’ encounter with MU69 very carefully. We will look for clues to help us understand why planets are so diverse. We will look for insights into where and how the organic materials we found on Pluto are produced.

Remember how we learned in elementary school about the three things necessary for life on Earth: liquid water, usable energy and raw materials containing, especially, carbon. I never would have imagined we would find all of those on, or inside of, Pluto — and in abundance. 

Does that mean that there is life on Pluto? Not at all. It just means the right ingredients exist.

We know that life formed soon after the Earth cooled off from its formation and had oceans. We know when it happened on Earth, but we don’t know how. We also know it is not as simple as putting those ingredients into a test tube and letting it bake. Perhaps the discoveries awaiting on MU69 will give us some hints as to how complex organic materials first formed.

What will we find on MU69? I can’t imagine.

Michael E. Summers is a planetary scientist at George Mason University and a co-investigator in NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.