NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which captured a series of photographs and data during its Pluto flyby last month, is now going to make similar examination of a small, icy body known as 2014 MU69 located in the Kuiper belt, if the agency approves the mission.
The visit to the new body will provide greater insights into the formation of planets as it is far away from the sun in the Kuiper belt. To put the distance of this new body in perspective, Pluto is 3 billion miles from the sun and the 2014 MU69 is 1 million more miles beyond Pluto.
“Even as the New Horizons spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, 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,” said John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and chief of the NASA Science Mission at the agency headquarters in Washington D.C.
“While discussions whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, we expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission while still providing new and exciting science.” he added.
NASA has already studied smaller icy objects like comets, some of which originated in the Kuiper Belt with Pluto being the largest Kuiper Belt object or KBO.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadel survey desired us to fly by,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator.
Another target known as PT3 was also chosen for the mission because of its big size and brightness, but PT1 was finally chosen because there’s a 100 percent chance of reaching the body with the fuel left on the spacecraft.
“Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach, leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unseen.”
KBO is thought to be a leftover from the early stages of the solar system. The space debris holds interesting data for space scientists. The new mission will definitely yield good results.
“There’s so much that we can learn from close-up spacecraft observations that we’ll never learn from the earth, as the Pluto flyby demonstrated so spectacularly” said John Spencer, team member in New Horizons. “The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.”
The team is expected to send in a budget proposal in 2016. If the mission gets approved by the space agency, the New Horizons spacecraft could reach the new KBO by January 1, 2019.
The new mission will not be a problem for the spacecraft as the New Horizons was designed to go far beyond Pluto. It has extra fuel on board and its scientific instruments, communications and power systems were built to keep working for years.
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