Washington: New Horizons, the spacecraft which whizzed past Pluto in its historic July 14 encounter, has a new destination – a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69.
NASA on Friday announced that it has picked 2014 MU69, an icy world that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto, as the probe's next flyby.
Although it has selected 2014 MU69 as the target, as part of its normal review process NASA will conduct a detailed assessment before officially approving the mission extension to conduct additional science as part of its normal review process
“Even as the New Horizon’s spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.
2014 MU69, also known as Potential Target 1 or PT1, was discovered by scientists while using Hubble Space Telescope.
“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,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
New Horizons will perform a series of four maneuvers in late October and early November to set its course toward 2014 MU69, which it expects to reach on January 1, 2019, said NASA. Any delays from those dates would cost precious fuel and add mission risk.
Scientists estimate that PT1 is just under 30 miles (about 45 kilometers) across; that’s more than 10 times larger and 1,000 times more massive than typical comets, like the one the Rosetta mission is now orbiting, but only about 0.5 to 1 percent of the size (and about 1/10,000th the mass) of Pluto. As such, PT1 is thought to be like the building blocks of Kuiper Belt planets such as Pluto.
The New Horizons spacecraft - currently 3 billion miles from Earth - is just starting to transmit the bulk of the images and other data, stored on its digital recorders, from its historic July encounter with the Pluto system. NASA said the spacecraft is healthy and operating normally.
New Horizons spacecraft made its close flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, when the probe came within 7,800 miles of the icy planet's surface. The spacecraft became the first-ever space mission to explore the icy planet.