The New Horizons mission is a resounding success. In mid-July, the world was blown away by the images produced by the New Horizons probe during its historic July 14 flyby of Pluto. A month and a half later and the team that made the new discoveries of Pluto possible has selected a new target.
It’s called 2014 MU69. Getting there will add another billion miles to New Horizons three billion mile journey that began in 2006.
“Even as the New Horizon’s spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and 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, chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington.
“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,” Grunsfeld adds.
C’mon NASA, approve the mission extension. The New Horizons team proved they are up to the task with the Pluto flyby. Plus, look at all the national and worldwide attention NASA garnered from the successful Pluto mission. Imagine the excitement as New Horizons approaches a truly unknown object.
An artist concept of New Horizons visiting a Kuiper Belt object. Credit: NASA
What we know about 2014 MU69 and why scientists want to explore it
Scientists estimate this Kuiper Belt object (KBO) is just under 30 miles across. That’s small, but other spacecraft are studying even smaller objects. The Rosetta probe is orbiting a comet that is much smaller than 2014 MU69.
Why are scientists so excited to study KBOs? Because they are so far away from the sun, it’s likely KBOs appear today just as they did during our solar system’s birth 4.6 billion years ago. Plus, these objects are believed to be the building blocks of planets in this region such as Pluto.
John Spencer, a New Horizons science team member, explains the benefits of extending the New Horizons mission. “There’s so much that we can learn from close-up spacecraft observations that we’ll never learn from Earth, as the Pluto flyby demonstrated so spectacularly.”
He added, “The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs.”
Getting mission extension approval
The New Horizons team needs approval from NASA to go to 2014 MU69. Next year, the team will submit a proposal to the agency for funding the extended mission. An independent team of experts will go over the proposal before NASA’s final decision.
This isn’t a spacecraft issue. New Horizons was designed from day one with a Kuiper Belt object in mind. It has the fuel. Its communications equipment was designed to work well past Pluto. And its power system has plenty of juice to keep the entire spacecraft working for years.
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern touched on why the New Horizons team chose 2014 MU69.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” said Stern. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
The New Horizons team has almost everything they need to visit a Kuiper Belt object. They have the experience from this summer’s Pluto flyby. They have a capable spacecraft. They have a target. Now all they need is NASA approval.