The future of the New Horizons spacecraft

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

As New Horizons spacecraft draws ever closer to Pluto en route to its planned close-encounter this summer, NASA is already hard at work reviewing potential candidates for its next destination, according to recent reports.

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Officials at the US space agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to review objects located in the Kuiper belt in search of suitably-positioned objects which could be reached by New Horizons in an extended mission, Irene Klotz of Discovery News explained on Friday.

The New Horizons team spent 45 days last summer scouting potential targets, and out of the five that made original cut, two potential destinations remained after a second round of observations that took place in October, NASA scientists announced earlier this week at the 46th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas.

Those two objects are 2014 MT69 and 2014 MT70, and they were chosen because both of them are within range of the spacecraft, which has a limited amount of fuel remaining. The agency is expected to announce which target will be selected in August, but a potential mission to either one is dependent upon NASA funding an extended mission for New Horizons.

The 2 candidates

The first of the two candidates, 2014 MT69, is described as a 37 mile (60 kilometer) wide body that orbits the sun at a distance 44.3 times that of Earth. The advantage of it is that it would take less fuel to reach, and New Horizons could arrive there on or around January 1, 2019.

[STORY: New Horizons begins first approach phase around Pluto]

“It’s not a terribly bright target and it’s not very big… and it’s quite possibly smaller, if it’s a binary or if other things are going on,” New Horizons team member Simon Porter, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, told Discovery News on Friday.

The other candidate, 2014 MT70, is brighter and most likely larger than MT60. It has a diameter of approximately 47 miles (76 kilometers), and Porter said that it is more desirable, scientifically speaking. A mission to either one of them would also include distant observations of as many other Kuiper belt objects as possible, he added.

Currently, Porter said that MT69 “is the front-runner” because it requires less of a change in velocity (Delta-v), but noted that its dim nature could require the use of more fuel for course corrections. He added that the position of the sun may has be an obstacle to the encounter.

[STORY: Pluto may be hiding two other planets, scientists say]

First, however, the spacecraft has a date with the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons.

In late January, New Horizons captured new photos of Pluto when it was over 126 million miles (nearly 203 million kilometers) away from the dwarf planet. The images, taken with the craft’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), were the first taken during its 2015 approach to the Pluto system, which culminates with a July 14 flyby, according to NASA.

“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light,” Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said at the time. “LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets.”

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