NASA's New Horizons to Explore More Kuiper Belt Objects Beyond Pluto
NASA's New Horizons mission already completed its successful Pluto flyby in July 2015. The flyby brought tons of data about the dwarf planet. But after the successful mission, what's next for New Horizons?
NASA recently announced that New Horizons was given a green light to go beyond Pluto and observe other mysterious celestial bodies on the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft will journey towards an object known as 2014 MU69 that is considered as one of the ancient building blocks of the Solar System. New Horizons is set to rendezvous with the object on January 1, 2019.
"The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise," Jim Green, NASA's director of Planetary Science said in a press release. "We're excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn't even discovered when the spacecraft launched," Green added.
The 2016 Planetary Mission Senior Review Panel report directed nine extended missions to continue operations in 2017 and 2018. But unlike New Horizons, the Dawn spacecraft will remain at the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt and will not pursue a flyby of another mysterious asteroid.
The New Horizons mission extension can largely be attributed to the valuable data it has given scientists and researchers at NASA. The extension is expected to last until 2021 and will conduct another flyby on the edge of the Solar System.
2014 MU69 is considered an interesting object populating the Kuiper Belt. Its icy form is about 20 to 30 miles across. This rock orbits the Sun one billion miles farther than Pluto that is why it will take New Horizons more than two years to get there.
Aside from that, two more dozens of objects on the Kuiper belt will be photographed and observed by the New Horizons.
"We can take pictures of Eris, even though we're further from it than we would be if we had stayed on Earth," John Spencer, new horizons team member said in an interview with the Verge. "But we're looking at it from a unique angle you could never see from Earth because the Earth is so close to the Sun," Spencer added.
The New Horizons team already made path changes maneuvers to prepare the spacecraft even before the approval was made. This helped the team save fuel and prepare for the mission at the same time.