After three billion miles and nine years in space, NASA’s New Horizons space probe arrived at Pluto earlier this year and captured stunning images of the most distant planet in our solar system. An astronomer’s dream, these images provided NASA with the closest and most detailed look at Pluto they have ever seen. Last week, NASA compiled the best of these images in a motion video that showcases the probe’s approach, pass-by, and departure from Pluto. But as the agency continues to analyze the Pluto data, it’s also planning the probe’s next fly-by destination, an object named 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper belt that’s almost a billion miles away from Pluto.
NASA hopes to use this next mission to study the composition and other properties of objects that are positioned at the outer edge of the solar system. Astronomers are interested in these Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) because they are the building blocks of Belt planets such as Pluto. This particular object was chosen for the mission due to its size and location. It’s small enough that it has not been modified by geologic processes and is far enough away from the sun’s influence that it likely has maintained its original composition. It also can be reached easily by the New Horizons spacecraft with minimal fuel consumption.
Object 2014 MU69 is thought to be approximately 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) wide, but it could be as large as 45 kilometers (28 miles). It is larger than most comets, but smaller than planets like Pluto, making it an ideal size for further investigation. Just as it did with Pluto, scientists hope to use the high resolution fly-by photos to gain a deeper understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs when the probe makes its pass-by.
Now that a destination has been chosen, NASA has to approve the New Horizons’ project in a proposal that is expected to succeed. Once approved, the probe will start burning fuel later this year as it begins to navigate deeper into the Kuiper belt. It is scheduled to reach object 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019, and continue on its journey beyond our solar system. It will maintain its course away from Earth until it runs out of power sometime in the 2030s.