Following its successful mission to the Pluto system last month, NASA’s New Horizons probe will now head to a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69, officials from the US space agency officially announced on Friday.
2014 MU69 is located approximately one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, and was discovered using the Hubble telescope as scientists searched for potential KBO fly-by targets for New Horizons in June 2014.
According to Space.com, NASA officials must approve a mission extension until 2019 for the fly-by to take place. The New Horizons team must write a proposal to the agency to convince them to fund a KBO exploration mission, and once that proposal is submitted next year it will be evaluated by an independent team before being reviewed by the agency itself.
“Even as the New Horizons 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,” John Grunsfeld, chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.
Scientists preparing for a fly-by that may never happen
Even though the proposal is pending, Space.com noted that the New Horizons team has to start planning immediately for a possible encounter with 2014 MU69. Starting in October, they will begin executing a series of four maneuvers that will put the spacecraft on a path to encounter the new object – an encounter that would likely take place on January 1, 2019.
2014 MU69 was one of five potential targets found during a search that started in 2011, and was one of five that was within New Horizon’s flight path. NASA scientists estimate that it is nearly 30 miles (45 kilometers) across, or 10 times larger and 1,000 times more mass than most comets. It is no more than one percent as large and 1/10,000th as massive as Pluto, the agency said.
“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,” explained Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Hoirzons mission from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado.
“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,” Stern added. The probe, he and his colleagues noted, carries enough extra hydrazine fuel for such a fly-by, as well as power and communication systems that are more than up for the task.
Image credit: NASA