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Next NASA New Horizons target might be really weird-looking

Not everything in space is round. Scientists think the next icy object New Horizons flies by could have an unusual shape.

This illustration shows one possibility for the shape of KBO MU69. 

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

NASA is sending the plucky New Horizons spacecraft toward a Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. It won't reach its target for about 17 months, but scientists are already gathering information on the far-flung KBO and it's looking mighty interesting.

Hot off its 2015 triumphs at Pluto, New Horizons headed in search of further adventures in the Kuiper Belt, an area filled with icy space bodies beyond Neptune's orbit. MU69, which NASA estimates is under 30 miles (45 kilometers) across, is one of those bodies.

MU69 passed in front of a star in mid-July and telescopes on Earth peered in its direction in time to catch a look at its shadow. This occultation revealed the KBO might not be a typical sphere. It may actually be in the shape of an American football, or it could be two separate bodies that orbit extremely close together. A third option is that it might be a one-piece object with a chunk missing. 

On Thursday, NASA released two artist interpretations of what MU69 might look like. One shows a binary object while the other shows a long shape that looks like a potato

"I could not be happier with the occultation results, which promise a scientific bonanza for the flyby," says New Horizons mission principal investigator Alan Stern

The New Horizons team expects the spacecraft to arrive at its destination for the flyby on Jan. 1, 2019. "That flyby will be the most distant in the history of space exploration, a billion miles beyond Pluto," says NASA.

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