With Pluto receding into the distance, New Horizons is speeding merrily along toward its next destination. On Wednesday, the spacecraft completed its fourth and final engine burn, placing it on course for 2014 MU69, an ancient, frozen body located more than a billion miles beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt is like a vast fossil bed, filled with primordial, icy debris that hasn't heated or changed much in the last few eons. All along, the plan has been for New Horizons to explore this frozen badlands after completing its Pluto flyby. Getting up close and personal with a Kuiper Belt Object could shed light on the birth and evolution our Solar System.
To do so, New Horizons needed to make four propulsive maneuvers with its hydrazine-fuelled thrusters. These maneuvers — the most distant trajectory corrections ever performed by any spacecraft — caused New Horizons to veer sideways, giving it a 57 metre per second nudge toward MU69. That's enough of a boost to ensure the spacecraft intercepts its target in just over three years
NASA still needs to formally approve the extended mission, but it's got plenty of time to do so — again, New Horizons isn't going to zip past MU69 until 2019. Meanwhile, the spacecraft will continue sending back data from its Pluto flyby until next September, so expect plenty more glorious images and scientific revelations to come.
Top image: Artist's concept of New Horizons encountering a small world in the outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt. Credit:NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker