In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history when it captured the first detailed images of Pluto at the far edges of our solar system. Now, it’s set to go even further after the NASA mission received an official green light to extend its mission.
An artist’s rendition of New Horizons encountering the object. (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)
The spacecraft is off to an object deep in the Kuiper Belt known as 2014 MU69. The mysterious object, which wasn’t even known at the time that New Horizons was launched in 2006, is just under 48km across — too big to be a comet, and too small to be a dwarf planet like Pluto.
As such, NASA considers 2014 MU69 to be one of the earliest building blocks of our solar system.
“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,” NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green said in a press release.
The team had previously chosen the object as a potential flyby target after the success of the Pluto mission, but needed official confirmation from the organisation to continue. Luckily, there isn’t much that needs to be done on New Horizons’ end, as it already made four propulsive maneuvers, boosting it to the new target.
New Horizons is expected to reach the object on Jan. 1, 2019.
In addition to the New Horizons news, NASA also announced that the Dawn spacecraft, which completed its primary mission at the dwarf planet Ceres at the end of June, will remain there and continue studying.
— NASA's Dawn Mission (@NASA_Dawn) July 1, 2016