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Life After Pluto: NASA Announces the Next Target for New Horizons

The spacecraft will be celebrating New Year’s Day 2019 with a (tiny) new planetary friend.

by Becky Ferreira
Aug 31 2015, 10:00am

Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

It's been a little over a month since New Horizons visited Pluto and its moons, capturing the first close-up images of this beloved dwarf planet.

But though this recent, momentous flyby was the spacecraft's main objective, it still has plenty of juice left over to visit objects deeper in the Kuiper belt—the vast band of planetary debris that encircles the outer solar system.

To that point, NASA just ended weeks of speculation by announcing where New Horizons is headed next: a tiny world known as 2014 MU69, discovered last year with help from the Hubble Space Telescope. After course changes are implemented this fall, the spacecraft will be on course to arrive at the small object on January 1, 2019.

"2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO (Kuiper Belt Object) that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by," said Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons, in a statement.

"Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen," Stern added.

Indeed, 2014 MU69—or PT1 (Potential Target 1) as NASA has nicknamed it—is a vastly different world from Pluto. For one thing, it is about 1 percent as massive as the recently visited dwarf planet, with a diameter of just 30 miles, at most.

Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

Scientists think smaller objects like 2014 MU69 may be the building blocks of larger KBOs like Pluto or Neptune's moon Triton, and that studying them can help to flesh out the origins of the Kuiper belt and its current dynamics.

"There's so much that we can learn from close-up spacecraft observations that we'll never learn from Earth, as the Pluto flyby demonstrated so spectacularly," said New Horizons team member John Spencer in a statement. "The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs."

In other words, New Horizons seems intent on living up to its ambitious name long after it has achieved its main objective. Though it will take years for scientists to chew through its recent findings about Pluto, it's still good to know that there's another adventure on this spacecraft's eponymous horizons.

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