Soaring speedily outward from the Pluto system at a distance of 3.2 billion miles, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft completed the fourth and final set of maneuvers last week to lock in its trajectory toward a Kuiper Belt asteroid catalogued as 2014 MU69. This mysterious small body is located more than 1 billion miles beyond the frosty dwarf planet and its odd complement of moons.
Subject to NASA funding approval, which seems likely due to the phenomenal success of the July Pluto flyby, New Horizons' extended mission would be another sparkling achievement for the $700 million spacecraft's jaunt across our solar system. The plutonium battery aboard the intrepid probe will last at least 15 more years and, if all goes according to plan (always a concern when it comes to the exacting and unforgiving nature of space travel), New Horizons should be on target for a flyby in January of 2019. This new destination is a mere 30 miles across and composed of the same sort of elements discovered on Pluto and its satellites.
"2014 MU69 is the type of object that Pluto is made of," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern. "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."
The four engine burns were perfectly executed by New Horizons' ground team over the course of October and into early November, ending with last Wednesday's 128 mph sideways shove.
"This is another milestone in the life of an already successful mission that's returning exciting new data every day," said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "These course adjustments preserve the option of studying an even more distant object in the future, as New Horizons continues its remarkable journey."
Are you enthused about New Horizons' next encounter in the Kuiper Belt?