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After Pluto, New Horizons next stop is Kupier Belt

by Bharath ChowdaryAugust 29, 2015

New Horizons has a new destination! The spacecraft, as you might remember, whizzed by the former planet known as Pluto earlier this summer. NASA has now picked its next stop: a small, cold Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69 that is nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.

Although the trip to Pluto has been carefully planned, the trip beyond has been…less so. Kuiper Belt objects at the edge of the solar system are enticing destinations because they’re made up of primitive material largely unchanged since the solar system’s birth 4.6 billion years ago. NASA had been looking for a KBO that New Horizons could visit since 2011. But none of the ground-based telescopes turned up anything that the spacecraft could reach with its remaining fuel.

With time running out, NASA finagled observation time on the Hubble Space Telescope in the summer of 2014. Then, finally, Hubble found five potential targets—eventually narrowed down to two.

2014 MU69 was known as potential target 1, or PT1, because it is easier to reach. But the other option, PT3, looked brighter in the sky, meaning it could be bigger and more interesting. “We have to weigh the risk of something barely reachable and another one that is smaller but easily reachable,” said Hal Weaver, a New Horizons project scientist, back in July. With a multimillion dollar spacecraft on the line, NASA evidently went with the safer bet.

NASA will point New Horizons toward 2014 MU69 with four maneuvers this fall. It’ll reach the target by January 2019. Because of the bureaucratic rules that govern NASA’s budget, though, the official proposal for the 2014 MU69 mission isn’t due until 2016. Of course, it’d be too late to maneuver New Horizons by then.

For now, NASA is also teasing the possibility of an extended mission—even beyond 2014 MU69.

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