New Horizons mission picks post-Pluto target

Image: New Horizons and KBO

An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA and the science team behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond have settled on the popular choice for the spacecraft’s next flyby: It’s 2014 MU69, an icy object a billion miles beyond Pluto that’s thought to be less than 30 miles (45 kilometers) wide.

That’s 10 times bigger than, say, the comet targeted by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe – but on the order of 1 percent as wide as Pluto. The New Horizons team suspects that 2014 MU69 represents a primordial object in the Kuiper Belt, the vast ring of icy material that lies beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Studying such a Kuiper Belt object, or KBO, should satisfy the mission’s post-Pluto objective of documenting the diversity of worlds at the solar system’s edge. “It is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said Friday in a NASA news release.

Image: New Horizons' course

This chart shows the path of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward its next potential target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, also known as PT1. Other dwarf planets are indicated on the chart as well. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

2014 MU69, also known as Potential Target 1 or PT1, was one of three objects identified after a months-long search that drew upon the observing power of the Hubble Space Telescope. Although an alternate target known as PT3 was somewhat brighter and probably bigger, PT1 was favored because there’s a 100 percent chance of reaching it with the fuel that was left on the New Horizons spacecraft after last month’s big Pluto flyby.

The New Horizons team has planned a series of four maneuvers in October and November to send the piano-sized probe toward 2014 MU69, but NASA won’t be able to give the final go-ahead for the extended mission until the team makes a formal proposal in 2016. If NASA gives the green light, the flyby is due to take place on Jan. 1, 2019.

In the meantime, New Horizons is continuing to send back imagery and other data that have been stored up since it flew past Pluto on July 14. New pictures should be released starting in a week or so.

This month, some of the best flyby views available to date were mashed together with animations to produce a couple of glorious time-lapse videos. Check out these beauty shots from Bjorn Jonsson on Vimeo and the Southwest Research Institute’s Stuart Robbins on YouTube:

A version of this report was published on August 28, 2015, on Universe Today.

About Alan Boyle

Aerospace and science editor for GeekWire, creator of Cosmic Log, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.
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