The success of the Pluto flyby back in July left the New Horizons team optimistic. On Aug. 28, NASA announced the team had selected the next target for the history-making New Horizons spacecraft.
Ever since the Voyager probes passed through the Kuiper Belt, scientists became interested in the potential treasure trove of clues as to the formation of the Solar System.
Being so far out from the Sun, the Kuiper Belt can be seen as a frozen time capsule of the early Solar System. Now, with New Horizons, that time capsule can finally be opened.
The target that the team selected, a small, distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69, lies nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto. Originally part of a number of potential targets, MU69 is estimated to be just under 30 miles across. While only about 1 percent of the size of Pluto, MU69 is still more than 10 times larger than the typical comet; and is thought to be one of the building blocks of Kuiper Belt dwarf planets like Pluto.
Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for New Horizons, called MU69 a “great choice” for the next phase of the mission. The KBO costs less fuel to reach than the other potential targets, leaving more reserves available for the actual flyby, scientific studies, and security against unexpected encounters.
Even with all the optimism in both NASA and the New Horizons team, the standard secondary mission proposal and approval process still applies. Like all missions that seek to further explore the unknown, the New Horizons team must write a proposal to NASA requesting funding for the Kuiper Belt mission. Due in 2016, the proposal will be evaluated by an independent panel before NASA can approve the mission extension.
Waiting is not an option. The New Horizons team must begin planning for the flyby immediately. A set of four maneuvers will take place in October and November of this year to put the spacecraft on the correct course. Should NASA give the green light, New Horizons will reach the distant KBO on New Year’s Day 2019.