A year ago this month, NASA’s New Horizons became the first spacecraft to complete a flyby of Pluto. The spacecraft beamed back images of deep craters, mountain ranges, and icy plains on the dwarf planet, but the rendezvous was brief. New Horizons was on to new horizons.
In August, the New Horizons team designated a 20- to 30-mile wide object called 2014 MU69 as the probe’s preferred next destination. In October and November, prior to NASA’s official approval to extend the mission, the team made four targeting maneuvers to set the spacecraft on a trajectory toward the distant space rock, which is located in the Kuiper belt about 1 billion miles farther from the Sun than Pluto (which is itself over 3.5 billion miles from the Sun).
It took ten months for New Horizons to receive formal approval but NASA finally gave the mission an extension on Friday, July 1. With this approval, New Horizons will continue into 2021. The spacecraft is expected to arrive at 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.
Along the way, the probe will swoop by some two dozen other Kuiper belt objects — remnants of the Solar System’s origin — in an attempt to reveal details about the formation of the early solar system.
Upon its arrival at 2014 MU69, New Horizons will map the body’s surface geology, measure temperature (we expect it will be cold), and search for satellite objects and rings. The mission crew will compare these findings with other bodies such as Kuiper belt comets and dwarf planets to identify similarities and differences.
Although New Horizons has received the go-ahead to venture, the Dawn spacecraft — which currently orbits the dwarf planets Ceres — will remain at it’s current location rather than proceeding to the Adeona asteroid. The decision was made by NASA’s Senior Review Panel, which determined that Ceres had more significant scientific data to offer.