NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which “phoned home” in July after successfully completing a historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto, now has a new target in sight.
In a statement released over the weekend, NASA announced that 2014 MU69 -- an object in the region of the outer Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt, nearly a billion miles from Pluto -- is likely to be the spacecraft’s next destination.
“We are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, said, in the statement. “While discussions whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, we expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission while still providing new and exciting science.”
New Horizons completed the Pluto flyby -- its primary mission -- at 7:49 a.m. EDT on Jul 14, after nearly a decade-long journey through the solar system that took it more than 3 billion miles from Earth. The spacecraft then spent over eight hours looking back at Pluto for a series of observations to study its atmosphere and photograph its night side. Sending back its first post-flyby signal took another four-and-a-half hours -- the time light and radio signals take to cover the distance between Pluto and Earth.
Though the space probe has sent back several breathtaking photos of the dwarf planet -- including one that shows its "heart" -- and its moon Charon, beaming back all the data stored in its onboard memory is expected to take another 15 months.
According to NASA, New Horizons carries extra hydrazine fuel to power a flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), and its communications systems were designed to work from far beyond Pluto.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said, in the statement. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
The Kuiper Belt, named after the Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, contains hundreds of thousands of icy bodies and trillions of comets. Scientists believe that as the region is made up of objects left over from the infancy of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago, it can provide vital clues about how the Solar System formed and evolved.
New Horizons is expected to reach 2014 MU69 in January 2019. Ahead of that, in 2016, NASA will carry out a review of the plan before officially approving the mission’s extension.