Dust has not yet settled on Pluto’s amazing Flyby that New Horizons got more job to do. Or so it seems. In a way, it’s logical. The probe is the fastest spacecraft ever launched and one of the most sophisticated out there, now travelling into an unexplored region of the heliosphere. And while the extended mission has still to be officially approved, we can be optimistic about it. “Even as the New Horizon’s spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer. While discussions whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, we expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission while still providing new and exciting science.” (John Grunsfeld, chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate).
Scientists have thought a lot before choosing the most suitable candidate. After all, the Kuiper Belt is a quite vast region, with plenty of interesting objects, like Eris, for example (too bad it’s currently in a position not suitable for a flyby). Now a decision has been finally made: NASA picked up a target, as it has announced few days ago.
The name of the candidate is 2014 MU69, and it is a small baby with an estimated diameter of 25-45 km. Its interest lies not in its size or luminosity (it’s about 200 million times fainter than what can be seen without a telescope. Read this article of the New Scientist for more details), but in the kind of information it can provide on the early stages of the Kuiper belt.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by. 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.” (Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator).
I can’t wait for more details. In the meantime, for a fast recap of the whole mission, this is a video worth watching: