Read More: Popular Science
In an effort so astronomically full of cooperation and enthusiasm it could have been scripted, last Sunday, some of the streets near Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina went dark. Streetlights blinked out, and a major highway closed for two hours to prevent the glare of headlights from obstructing the view of 24 portable telescopes all pointing at a distant, unnamed star. Semi-trailer trucks were driven to remote locations to help block the telescopes (and the astronomers crewing them) from the harsh, Patagonian winter wind. Then 60 researchers waited for the star to blink. They were watching for the few fractions of a second when a distant object in our solar system would zip in front of the star, giving us our closest and best look at the next target for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which is still speeding through the outer solar system after its triumphant flyby of Pluto two years ago. 2014 MU69 is a cold classical object a billion miles further away than Pluto. It’s something that researchers think has been around since the very early days of the solar system. We don’t know much about it—not even its size or shape. But thanks to measurements gathered by the Hubble, we do know its trajectory. The effort on Sunday was the last in a set of three observations that occurred in June and earlier in July in an attempt by astronomers to get a better look at the object before New Horizons goes flying by it on New Year’s Day, 2019. By watching as 2014 MU69 passes in front of a light source like a star (a process known as occultation) researchers can get more information about how big the object is, and if there is any debris around it (like rings or moons) that might pose a problem for New Horizons.