As the science continues coming in from the close encounter with Pluto, the New Horizons team is already looking to the future. A mission extension is still pending approval, but that’s not stopping them from getting New Horizons on the way for a potential January 2019 encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO).
The final of four planned maneuvers was completed yesterday at around 1:35 p.m. EST. At 1:15 p.m. EST, New Horizons team members told the spacecraft to fire its hydrazine thrusters for just under 20 minutes. Nearly six hours later, data from NASA’s Deep Space Network showed the maneuver was a success.
“This is another milestone in the life of an already successful mission that’s returning exciting new data every day,” said Curt Niebur, a New Horizons program scientist. “These course adjustments preserve the option of studying an even more distant object in the future, as New Horizons continues its remarkable journey.”
The four maneuvers will go down in the record books. They are the most distant trajectory corrections ever performed by any spacecraft.
How do you adjust a spacecraft’s trajectory that sits 3.2 billion miles from Earth? Very carefully and with a large helping of patience. The four maneuvers were perfectly executed and gave the New Horizons a sideways push towards KBO 2014 MU69. How big of a ‘push’ are we talking? 57 meters per second (128 miles per hour) towards MU69. That doesn’t seem like much for an object that sits 895 million miles away from New Horizons. But, it’s enough to get New Horizons on an intercept course in just over three years.
Plus, this won’t be the last maneuver before 2019. This is just to get New Horizons heading in the right direction. As New Horizons gets closer to MU69, the team will fine tune their intercept course.
A January 2019 meetup
Before a January 2019 meetup happens, the New Horizons team needs approval from NASA for an extended mission. Sometime early next year, the team will submit a formal proposal to NASA. It will then be reviewed, and NASA will decide whether to fund a mission extension.
“New Horizons is healthy and now on course to make the first exploration of a building block of small planets like Pluto, and we’re excited to propose its exploration to NASA,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
I can’t imagine a scenario where the mission extension isn’t approved. New Horizons’ close encounter with Pluto has produced some of the most amazing images I have ever seen. The New Horizons team hopes to get even closer to MU69 than it did to Pluto. Granted, MU69 is much smaller than Pluto.
Today, New Horizons is soaring towards MU69 at more than 32,000 miles per hour as it beams data from its July flyby back to Earth.