Now that It's Passed Pluto, What's Next for New Horizons?

November 3, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Artist's impression of New Horizons spacecraft passing Pluto
Photo credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

Rather than rest on its laurels after making its historic Pluto flyby, the New Horizons spacecraft will aim for a new icy target floating in the Kuiper Belt.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on a roll. It successfully completed the 3-billion-mile journey to Pluto in July, sending back stunning images and reams of data that will keep planetary scientists blissfully busy. So why stop there?

The mission’s team agrees, and they’ve set their sights on a new target: 2014 MU69, an icy rock in the Kuiper Belt that orbits about a billion miles further out from Pluto. Scientists estimate the object to be about 30 miles across, and 1,000 times larger than a typical comet — similar to the objects that assembled into the outer planets.

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This new mission will fulfill the spacecraft’s ultimate destiny, as it was originally designed to fly even further than Pluto to explore the Kuiper Belt. It is equipped with extra hydrazine fuel, a robust long-distance communications system, a long-lasting power system, and technology that can operate in extremely low-light conditions. Even as the space-craft was hurtling towards Pluto in 2011, scientists had already begun looking for new targets. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, they discovered five potential objects in New Horizons’ flight path. MU69 was selected based on its orbiting location and its capacity to provide unique data.

The New Horizons team will have to submit an official proposal in 2016, and hopefully NASA will approve and fund the new destination. Even before the agency green-lights the mission, the space-craft will make a series of four navigational maneuvers this fall, or risk using up too much of its fuel reserves. As long as New Horizons sets its new course as soon as possible, scientists estimate it will reach MU69 by January 2019.

Why the interest in the Kuiper Belt? Aside from a general curiosity about local objects, astronomers also want to investigate this ancient region to find out more about the solar system’s origins. Unlike the asteroids that orbit closer to the sun, these objects haven’t received nearly as much solar energy and can offer a flashback to the state of the solar system billions of years ago. This new mission to MU69 will teach astronomers about the diversity of objects that can be found in the unstudied outer reaches of the solar system.

Based on materials provided by NASA.

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