In the words of American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “some of the most interesting places in the Solar System are not planets at all.” In modern day astronomy, the Kuiper Belt is a popular subject of study. It is the outer rim of the solar system, a circumstellar disc that hosts frozen volatiles like methane and ammonia, all flung in chaotic trajectories. The exploration of this space is a new Odyssey, which is why NASA distillates billions of dollars into this project. This voyage, one of the most expensive in all of history, is spearheaded by the New Horizons space-probe.
As of 2016, the spacecraft completed its fly-by study of Pluto, a dwarf-planet infamously renowned as the “King of the Kuiper Belt”. Often compared to a “grand piano” in size and shape, New Horizons continues to play its symphony as it propels into the center of the Kuiper Belt’s chaos. Into the home of the comets. A home that is unrivalled in levels of danger. As the probe travels with a speed of 57.936 km/h (36.000 mph), a collusion means certain death for the grand piano.
So, why invest so much in a study with such a risk? The Kuiper Belt hosts the greatest selection of comets in the solar system; comets, objects created by the flow of material from the inner to the outer solar system during its infancy. So, the Kuiper Belt is a cold, well-preserved gallery with pictures of the formation of the solar system. This is why that the New Horizons spacecraft has set sail towards the Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69, destined to arrive New Year’s Day, 2019.
Image Source: NASA
What is remarkable about the Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 is its discovery. Its existence was only revealed after New Horizons launched into space, meaning it was targeted for a fly-by because of its special nature. It was not part of the original schedule. In June 2017, the Hubble Space Telescope succeeded in determining the rotation period of the object. This greatly reduced the uncertainty of the orbit, meaning that the pole is most likely pointed towards Earth. This is why that New Horizons has been chosen to study this object. From the beginning, it was already scheduled to pass through the Kuiper Belt, and its time of arrival at Object 2014 MU69 is ideal. All data indicates that the larger part of the axis will face Earth at the spacecraft’s time of arrival, making it easier to study.
Assuming that New Horizons survives the journey, it will study the comet similarly to how it studied Pluto. It will fly by, take photos, and continue its path, further and deeper into the Kuiper Belt. These photos will then be analyzed here on Earth in order to determine the comet’s composition. Perhaps, it will indicate further that comets delivered many of the ingredients for life during our planet’s early development, such as water and much of the carbon-based molecules. The purpose of this study is to specify exactly how much elements on comets contributed to our own origins. If so, it is easy to imagine that comets delivered the same components elsewhere, as well.
Still, it is a billion-dollar investment. Is it fair to use that kind of money on space exploration when other issues happen here, where we live? The purpose of studying comets is not just for the purpose of science, but also defense. Rare and deadly comet collisions with Earth has, in the past, disrupted the development of life. The universe is complex. Anything can happen. It can happen again. Being the home of the comets, the Kuiper Belt could be the place of such an apocalypse. By studying it, we are better equipped to defend ourselves against it.
The New Horizons space-probe is the frontier of space exploration in our solar system. With all said and done, our ancestors looked to the stars for guidance and meaning. Perhaps, the best reason to study the outer rims of space is to continue the search for meaning. After all, it is said that “knowing and understanding the stage on which our life is being played is crucial for any existence to have any real meaning.”
The spacecraft is destined to fly-by the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019. Currently, New Horizons plunges through space at staggering 1 million kilometers every day, closing in on the object that is over 7 billion kilometers away. That is 10 billion times fainter than we can see.