New Horizons, just a few months after its flyby of Pluto, is getting ready for its next mission: a visit to a previously unknown body at the outer boundary of the solar system.
It will be the second encounter with an object in the region of the outer solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. It will also be the first time a new destination was identified after a craft launched, and will give us a peek into a class of ancient debris bodies from the formation of the solar system.
In July, the New Horizons craft completed its nine year journey to the dwarf planet Pluto, ending the reconnaissance of the classical solar system. Now, it will become the first body to encounter another object in the icy Kuiper Belt after firing its thrusters for the first of four total trajectory changes needed to bring it in passing distance of a 28-mile chunk of ice known as 2014 MU69, according to a NASA press release.
The craft is expected to fly by the small body on January 1, 2019. There's one small hitch: the extended mission hasn't yet been approved, so it may fly by without support staff at NASA to witness it. The New Horizons team is still drafting up a proposal for phase two of the mission, but needs to do the proper maneuvers now in order to have a chance at arriving there.
The next engine burn is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, with the last two taking place October 28 and November 4. These will correct the course of the craft and prepare it for its encounter in 2019, After that, the team will continue drafting the proposal, which will be presented in 2016. NASA will have to approve the extended mission and Congress will have to allocate the funds to keep the mission going. The extended mission will likely gain approval, but it's not guaranteed.
Until the mid-1990s, astronomers knew of no large bodies in the solar system past the orbit of Pluto, giving it a tentative place as the ninth planet. Planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper theorized that there was a region of bodies past Neptune, and that theoretical set of bodies was designated the Kuiper Belt.
In 1992, the second Kuiper Belt Object was found, third if you count Pluto's moon Charon. The object, a chuck of ice called 1992 QB1, wasn't much to write home about, only about 100 miles in diameter. However, it signalled that our solar system had a "third zone" of yet undiscovered objects, after the first zone of rocky planets and the second zone of large gas planets.
New Horizons is still downloading data from its Pluto encounter, sending back 16 GB of data at a rate of 1 to 4 kilobytes per second. When it reaches 2014 MU69, it will be able to take long range images, count particles in the vicinity of the object, measure the sun's interaction, and perform other scientific observations. The extended mission will give planetary scientists more insight into the formation of the solar system, as much of the Kuiper Belt is filled with debris from the early solar system. As such, it will be one of the most ancient surfaces ever imaged by humans.