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NASA extends the New Horizons mission to fly by another small world beyond Pluto

The spacecraft's new target is 2014 MU69

Today, New Horizons team received official confirmation that they will get extra funding from NASA to continue doing science with their faraway spacecraft, which visited Pluto in the summer of 2015. During this extension, which will last to 2021, New Horizons will conduct another flyby of an object at the Solar System's edge, as well as collect data on dozens of other deep space objects along the way.

The spacecraft will reach the object on January 1st, 2019

The spacecraft’s new target is 2014 MU69, an icy body about 20 to 30 miles across located in the Kuiper Belt — the huge cloud of objects at the fringes of the Solar System. This space rock orbits the Sun about 1 billion miles farther out than Pluto, so it will take New Horizons a few years to get there. The spacecraft will reach the object on January 1st, 2019 and conduct a flyby similar to that of Pluto. But this time, New Horizons will get even closer to 2014 MU69 than it did during the first flyby.

But that’s not the only object New Horizons will study during the mission extension. As it travels to 2014 MU69, the spacecraft will be observing about two dozen other objects located in the Kuiper Belt. That includes Eris, the second largest dwarf planet in the region after Pluto. "We can take pictures of Eris, even though we’re further from it than we would be if we had stayed on Earth," John Spencer, a New Horizons team member and scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told The Verge. "But we’re looking at it from a unique angle you could never see from Earth, because the Earth is so close to the Sun."

The necessary arrangements have already been made

Fortunately, the mission team doesn’t have too many preparations to make for the new mission; the necessary arrangements have already been made. Back in October and November, the New Horizons spacecraft made four correction maneuvers to get the probe on the right path for the flyby. The maneuvers were made even though the mission team didn’t know if they would get approval. The idea was to save as much fuel as possible. "If we’d waited until the summer of 2016 to start planning the burn, it would have been a lot more expensive in terms of fuel and would have almost run the tank dry and would have left no margin for error," Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, told The Verge.

Last year, the New Horizons spacecraft made history — and a lot of excitement — when it became the first vehicle to ever visit Pluto. On July 14th, 2015, the probe came within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet, gathering data and snapping images of its surface.

How NASA pulled off the Pluto flyby