MU69: New Horizons’ Next Kuiper Belt Target Is One Big Mystery

mu-mu-land
Not as advertised? 2014 MU69 could be one big Kuiper Belt mess (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben)

“All bound for Mu Mu Land” — The KLF, ‘Justified and Ancient’ (seems appropriate)

After visiting Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s epic New Horizons mission soared into the great unknown, a.k.a. the Kuiper Belt. This strange region, which extends beyond Pluto’s orbit, is known to be populated with dwarf planets, comets, asteroids and junk that was left behind after the solar system’s formation, five billion years ago.

In an effort to better understand the solar system’s boondocks, New Horizons is on a trajectory that will create a second flyby opportunity. On New Year’s Day 2019, the spacecraft will buzz a mysterious object called 2014 MU69. But although we know this Kuiper Belt Object is out there, astronomers aren’t entirely sure what it is. And that’s a bit of a problem.

For two seconds on June 3, astronomers were presented with an opportunity to better observe MU69, but instead of clearing up its mystery the occultation event has created more questions than answers.

An occultation is when an object, like a distant asteroid, drifts in front of a background star. If astronomers time it perfectly, they can observe the star at the time of occultation in a bid to image the tiny shadow that will rapidly speed across our planet. And in the case of the June 3 event, dozens of mission team members and collaborators were ready and waiting along the predicted shadow track in South Africa and Argentina. In all, 100,000 images were taken of the star during the rapid occultation.

What they saw — or, indeed, didn’t see — is a bit of a conundrum.

“These data show that MU69 might not be as dark or as large as some expected,” said Marc Buie, a New Horizons science team member and occultation team leader from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colo., in a statement.

Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope had previously estimated that MU69 is between 12- to 25-miles wide. That might be a pretty big overestimation by all accounts. And it may not be a single object at all.

“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator also of SwRI. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”

If it’s the latter, this could pose a problem for New Horizons.

Before the mission encountered Pluto in 2015, there was concern that the dwarf planet’s neighborhood might have been filled with debris. This concern was heightened after Pluto’s moons Styx and Kerberos were revealed by Hubble in 2011, only four years before New Horizons was set to barrel through the system. If there were more sub-resolution chunks near Pluto, they would have been regarded as collision risks.

Although New Horizons survived the Pluto encounter, if MU69 is a swarm of debris and not a solid object, mission scientists will have to assess the impact risk once again when New Horizons attempts its second flyby in 2019.

More occultations are forecast for July 10 and July 17, and NASA will also be flying its airborne observatory SOFIA through the occultation path on July 10 in hopes of better resolving MU69’s true nature.

So, as New Horizons speeds toward MU69, one of the most ancient objects in our sun’s domain, mystery and potential danger awaits.

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Whatever Happened to Hyper-Velocity Star HD 271791?

One scenario: Exploding star flings binary parter away at high velocity (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)
One scenario: Exploding star flings binary parter away at high velocity (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)

HC 271791 is a star with a problem, it’s moving so fast through our galaxy that it will eventually escape from the Milky Way all together. However, there is a growing question mark hanging over the reasons as to why HD 271791 is travelling faster than the galactic escape velocity.

So-called hyper-velocity stars were first predicted to exist back in 1988 when astrophysicist Jack Hills at Los Alamos National Laboratories pondered what would happen if a binary star system should stray too close to the supermassive black hole lurking in the galactic nucleus. Hills calculated that should one of the stars get swallowed by the black hole, the binary partner would be instantly released from the gravitational bind, flinging it away from the black hole.

This would be analogous to a hammer thrower spinning around, accelerating the ball of the hammer rapidly in a circle around his body. When the thrower releases the hammer at just the right moment, the weight is launched into the air, travelling tens of meters across the stadium. The faster the hammer thrower spins the ball, the greater the rotational velocity; when he releases the hammer, rotational velocity is converted to translational velocity, launching the ball away from him. Gold medals all ’round.

So, considering Hills’ model, when one of the stars are lost through black hole death, the other star is launched, hammer-style, at high velocity away from the galactic core. The fast rotational velocity is converted into a hyper-velocity star blasting through interstellar (and eventually intergalactic) space.

Hills actually took his theory and instructed the astronomical community to keep an eye open for speeding stellar objects, and sure enough they were out there. HD 271791 is one of these stars, travelling at a whopping 2.2 million kilometres per hour, a speed far in excess of the galactic escape velocity.

However, the 11 solar mass star didn’t originate from the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole (inside the radio source Sgr. A*), it was propelled from the outermost edge of the galactic disk. There is absolutely no evidence of a supermassive black hole out there, so what could have accelerated HD 271791 to such a high velocity? After all, stars aren’t exactly easy objects to throw around.

If HD 271791 used to be part of a binary pair, its partner would have had to suddenly disappear, releasing its gravitational grip rapidly. One idea is that HD 271791’s sibling exploded as a supernova. This should have provided the sudden loss in a gravitational field — the rapidly expanding supernova plasma will have dispersed the gravitational influence of the star.

However, according to Vasilii Gvaramadze at Moscow State University, the supernova theory may not be sound either; by his calculations a binary pair simply cannot produce such a large velocity. Gvaramadze thinks that a far more complex interaction between two binary pairs (four stars total) or one binary pair and another single star some 300 solar masses. Somehow, this “strong dynamical encounter” caused HD 271791 to be catapulted out of the system, propelling it at a galactic escape velocity.

Although this complex slingshot theory sounds pretty interesting, the supernova theory still sounds like the most plausible answer. But how could a sufficient rotational velocity be attained? As Gvaramadze points out, even an extreme rapidly orbiting binary pair cannot produce a star speeding at 530-920km/s.

This is in contrast to research carried out by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In a January 2009 press release, Maria Fernanda Nieva points out that this hyper-velocity star possesses the chemical fingerprint of having been in the locality of a supernova explosion. This leads Nieva to conclude that HD 271791 was ejected after its binary partner exploded. What’s more, a Wolf-Rayet may have been the culprit.

Up to now such a scenario has been dismissed for hyper-velocity stars, because the supernova precursor usually is a super-giant star and any companion has to be at large distance in order to orbit the star. Hence the orbital velocities are fairly modest. The most massive stars in the Galaxy, however, end their lives as quite compact so-called Wolf-Rayet stars rather than as super-giants. The compactness of the primary leaves room for a companion to move rapidly on a close orbit of about 1 day-period. When the Wolf-Rayet-star exploded its companion HD 271791 was released at very high speed. In addition, HD 271791 made use of the Milky Way rotation to finally achieve escape velocity. —Maria Fernanda Nieva

Even though Gvaramadze’s stellar pinball theory sounds pretty compelling, the fact that HD 271791 contains a hint of supernova remnant in its atmosphere, the supernova-triggered event sounds more likely. But there is the fact that just because this 11 solar mass star was near a supernova some time in its past, it certainly doesn’t indicate that a supernova was the cause of it’s high speed.

For now I suppose, the jury is still out…

Publication: On the origin of the hypervelocity runaway star HD271791, V.V.Gvaramadze, 2009. arXiv:0909.4928v1 [astro-ph.SR]

Original source: arXiv blog