The New Horizons Spacecraft has fixed a new destination following its July 14 Pluto fly-by: a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) orbiting around 1,000,000,000 miles beyond.
The celestial body is called 2014 MU69 and its diameter is of approximately 28 miles (45 kilometers). Scientists estimate that the icy object is merely 1% the size of Pluto, which still makes it 10 times bigger than a regular comet and 1, 000 times more massive.
The KBO was one of the two potential destinations that NASA had to select from for its new mission, and the decision to opt for this target was well-founded.
As New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern explains: ` 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’.
This option seems also cost-effective because it requires less fuel than other potential targets, thus allowing enough quantities for the fly-by, for auxiliary science and for unforeseen circumstances. The drone’s current distance from the sun is too significant to allow it to be solar-powered, so it is particularly vital to use reserves sparingly.
At the moment, the New Horizon is on a small break after its Pluto voyage, still sending information collected by the spacecraft instruments but at a lower rate. In early September, it will resume its normal transmission of imagery and other data. Afterwards, between late October and early November the ship will perform 4 maneuvers, following which it will commence its journey to the KBO 2014 MU69, also nicknamed `PT1` (Potential Target 1). The destination will most likely be reached by January 1, 2019, provided that no delays occur, which may jeopardize the mission and waste precious fuel.
The mission hasn’t been officially approved yet, because an independent team of experts has to conduct a review process in order to fully assess its suitability before extending the research. However, there’s a high likelihood that everything will proceed smoothly. After all, the New Horizons has a power system which will continue operating for many years to come. In addition, the ship carries enough hydrazine fuel for such a fly-by and its communication system was especially conceived to ensure functionality well beyond Pluto, into the Kuiper Belt region. Last but not least, the scientific instruments on board can broadcast images even at lower light intensity than they are bound to encounter during the MU69 voyage.
Kuiper Belt objects are particularly interesting to study because they have received only a low amount of solar heat. As a result, their frozen, well-preserved surface may hold the key to explaining how the outer solar system looked like 4.6 billion years ago, at its early beginnings. This could revolutionize mankind’s understanding of space, in potentially unexpected ways.
Image Source: Wikimedia