After flying by Pluto on July 14th, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has a new destination. The mission team has selected another object in the Kuiper Belt — the region of icy bodies that orbits the edge of the Solar System — for the probe to explore next.
The spacecraft's new potential target is called 2014 MU69; it's a much smaller object than Pluto and orbits the Sun nearly 1 billion miles beyond the dwarf planet. 2014 MU69 is an ideal candidate for further exploration, because it will cost less fuel to reach than other Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, in a statement. Using less fuel to get to the object means more will be available to power the probe’s data-gathering instruments. The images and information gathered by New Horizons will give scientists a much better understanding of the worlds at the fringes of our Solar System.
The New Horizons team can't celebrate the selection just yet, though
The New Horizons team can't celebrate the selection just yet, though; they still have to get official approval from NASA before they can extend the probe's mission and visit the new world. The team must write a proposal to the space agency to get funding for the new leg of the trip. An independent panel will review and decided on the proposal sometime in 2016.
Even without approval, the mission team still has to prepare for the flyby now or it won’t work. In late October and November of this year, they will perform four maneuvers to redirect New Horizons toward 2014 MU69. It’s the only way to guarantee they’ll have enough fuel to conduct the extended mission if it gets approved. New Horizons is expected to reach 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019.