As the images captured by NASA’s New Horizons after circling the former planet of Pluto where being sent back to Earth, John Grunsfeld, Chieff of the NASA Mission Directorate and his team where already plotting the probe’s next target.
In his own words:
“we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer.”
The target was set for the icy planetoid 2014 MU69, located in the Kuiper Belt, a huge region of space which extends from Neptune’s orbit to beyond the planets.
Similar to an asteroid field, the Kuiper Belt has the peculiarity of being formed mostly from small bodies of frozen volatiles, such as methane, ammonia and water, mostly dating back to 4.6 billion years ago.
The study of 2014 MU69, an estimated 30 miles (45 km) across icy planetoid might provide a more thorough understanding as to how space bodies such as Pluto where formed, as well as precious insight into KBO (Kuiper Belt Objects) and the Kuiper Belt itself.
The comet type object was selected due to both scientific and technical considerations, since it is the easiest to reach from the probe’s current location among the three KBO proposed. New Horizons needs to use only 35% of its fuel in order to target 2014 MU69 and it will get close enough for a flyby on January 2019, after a journey of over four billion miles.
While most NASA probes are designed to conduct secondary missions after their primary purpose is fulfilled, holding extra hydrazine fuel on board, it is however necessary for special a commission to approve of the new goal. As of date, John Grunsfeld and his team are waiting for their proposal to be approved by NASA’s higher echelons.
So far, the intrepid New Horizons has traveled three billion miles from Earth since its launch on the 19th of January 2006, as part of the New Frontiers program, with the dwarf planet Pluto as its primary destination and research into the Kuiper belt as a primary goal. It also took infrared pictures of Jupiter and its moon Callisto in September 2006 and of the Jovian moons later in the journey.
It begun capturing images of Pluto and its moon Charon from early in 2015, getting as close as 7767 miles to the dwarf planet. A film of the images recorded had been put together by NASA, and is available to the public on the agency’s official site.
Photo Credits: wikipedia.org