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Close Encounters of the Kuiper Belt kind: New Horizons to come within just 3,500km of MU69

Probe skipped past Pluto by 12,500km, so this rock needs to prepare for its close-up

By Richard Chirgwin, 7 Sep 2017

If we're not all too hungover when New Year's Day 2019 rolls around, NASA will hopefully have a fun set of photos to show us because on that day New Horizons probe has been told to go within just 3,500km of Kuiper Belt Object MU69.

Having nominated MU69 as next on New Horizons' itinerary in 2015, it's already pointed the probe in the right general direction.

The agency has now announced just how close the probe will get to MU69: after travelling 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, New Horizons will come much closer to the distant rock than it did to Pluto: 3,500 kilometres at closest approach, compared to the 12,500 km approach to Pluto.

There's even a contingency plan in case the probably-duck-shaped MU 69 has collected debris around it – the approach would be adjusted for a 10,000 km approach.

In either case, NASA explains, New Horizons will look at the object from celestial north and provide boffins' best-ever view of anything so far away.

Assuming the closer fly-by, the agency says the probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will spot features as small as 70 metres across (the smallest it could pick out on Pluto was 183 metres). ®

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