As each day passes, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft ventures deeper into our solar system. Last July’s encounter with Pluto was more than anyone could have ever dreamed. The former ninth planet blew us away with its smooth plains and stunning mountains.

And while Pluto is in the rear view, the mission continues for New Horizons. According to Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, the spacecraft has sent about 25 gigabits of images and data back to Earth. Another 25 gigabits is on the way, and the data dump should be done sometime in October or November.

The next journey for New Horizons

The spacecraft’s team took one huge step towards its next journey earlier this month. The mission extension proposal to go deeper into the Kuiper Belt was completed and handed over for NASA’s consideration.

Alan Stern gave us a sneak peek at what the mission entails, and it’s much bigger than I realized. We’ve already heard about the main objective – 2014 MU69. It’s a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) believed to be about 21 to 40 kilometers across. Much larger than the comet the Rosetta spacecraft is orbiting (about 1,000 times), but 500,000 times less massive than Pluto.

Stern explains why the size and position make MU69 such a compelling target. “This places it in a key intermediate size regime to better understand planetary accretion. And given its 4-plus-billion-year existence in cold storage so far from the sun, MU69 will be the most pristine object ever visited by any space mission.”

New Horizons is already on its way to a potential January 1, 2019 meeting. The team fired up the spacecraft’s engines late last year before it would cost too much fuel.

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During a potential flyby of MU69, the spacecraft will train all seven of its instruments at the small body. Everything from detailed global and high-resolution mapping to searching for tiny moons is on the table.

Did You Know: If New Horizons does make it to MU69, the data downlink from the encounter will take 20 months. The Pluto encounter will have taken about 16 months once it wraps up.

Here’s how the MU69 images will look

Stern shows off simulated close approach imaging of MU69 by comparing it to Mars’ moon Phobos. Both are similar in size.

simulated image of MU69

MU69 won’t look like this, but it’s the resolution we can expect to see from a close flyby.

The mission is bigger than just MU69

A flyby of MU69 would be a remarkable achievement, but the New Horizons team has their eyes set even higher. They want to make distant flyby observations of up to 20 other Kuiper Belt Objects between now and 2020.

These encounters won’t give us incredible image resolution, but scientists will be able to determine their shape, surface properties and whether any of them has satellites.

Stern makes the case for the extended mission: “The exploration of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs like MU69 by New Horizons would transform Kuiper Belt and KBO science from a purely astronomical pursuit, as it is today, to a geological and geophysical pursuit.”

Because all systems are green on New Horizons, Stern is optimistic about getting approval. He should have his answer by July. I think their chances are good. The amount of good press generated by New Horizons’ close encounter with Pluto was incredible. I never think new Pluto images can be better than the last ones, and every time they surprise me. If Pluto is this unique, what about a Kuiper Belt Object?

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What if NASA says no to the mission extension? New Horizons will finish downlinking its data to Earth, and the team will shut the spacecraft off in December. I just don’t see how NASA can pass up the opportunity to explore the Kuiper Belt. No other spacecraft is being designed to explore the area. New Horizons is healthy and right in the area.

We’ll see what the independent review of the extended mission has to say over the next two months.

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