Today, NASA announced that it is officially extending the New Horizons mission. That means the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in July 2015, will be doing another flyby of an object in the Kipper Belt. That’s the large cloud of icy bodies found at the edge of the Solar System.
Alan Stern: We are on our way to another flyby, which will take place on a very easy date to remember, on January 1st, 2019. And uh it won’t be a flyby with a planet like Pluto; it’ll be with a small body, one of the building blocks of planets like Pluto, which is a very high scientific priority to try to understand the pieces that went into small planets like Pluto. Loren: The object that New Horizons will be visiting is an icy body called 2014 MU69.
It’s about 20 to 30 miles in diameter and orbits the Sun 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The rock was selected in August 2015 as the probe’s next target, and in October and November, the mission team adjusted the course of New Horizons to make sure the spacecraft would reach MU69 in time for the 2019 flyby. Those course corrections were made even though the team didn’t know if the New Horizons extended mission would receive funding forth extended mission.
Alan Stern: That was dictated little bit by orbital mechanics and a little bit by their ‘sonly a certain amount of fuel left in the tank. And the longer you wait to fire the engines, the more fuel it takes because there’s less time for the result of the burn to take effect.
Why NASA Extend Horizon Mission
So we calculated that what made the most sense was to do the targeting maneuvers in the fall of 2015 even though we wouldn’t know about if we got funding until the summer of 2016, because if we’d waited until the summer of 2016 to start planning the burn and then put all that together it would have been a lot more expensive in terms of fuel and would have almost run the tank dry and would have left no margin for error. Loren: During the flyby, New Horizons will gather photos and date of MU69, just like it did of Pluto. But that’s not the only object the spacecraft will be studying during the extended mission.
Alan Stern: This mission, which is called the Kipper Belt Extended Mission, or we nicknamed it KIM, is all about using New Horizons in every way possible to study the Kipper Belt. So it’s got one flyby really close, even closer than we flew by Pluto on January 1st, 2019, but it also studies about two dozen other Kipper Belt objects that it passes close enough to that it can do better than Hubble or anything from Earth. So all across 2016, 17, 18 and 19, New Horizons is pointing in different directions and looking at different Kipper Belt objects.
Loren: That includes studying the dwarf planet Eris the second largest object in the Kipper Belt. New Horizons will also be passing through the densest part of the belt, coming within 10 million miles of other nearby objects. That may seem pretty far, but that’s close enough for New Horizons to study. The researchers will be looking for small moons or even rings of material surrounding these Kipper Belt objects. Hopefully, gathering data about these objects could tell us a lot more about how the various planets formed in our Solar System 4.5 billion years ago.