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Passing by Pluto, NASA's New Horizons Has a New Goal in Sight

Mark your calendars for New Years Day, 2019.


Having flown more than three billion miles and given humanity its first close-up look at Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft may have a new mission.

NASA said yesterday it hopes to get approval to fund an extended mission that would send the spacecraft to the Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69 located about a billion miles past Pluto, which it should reach on Jan. 1 2019.

The Kuiper Belt is the region of a our solar system first discovered in 1992 that extends roughly from beyond the orbit of Neptune out to about nine billion miles from the sun. It’s apparently populated by billions of smaller objects, mainly hunks of metal, rock and frozen methane, ammonia and water. Technically speaking, Pluto is considered a “dwarf planet” and the largest member of the Kuiper Belt, along with two others, Haumea and Makemake.

So what’s so special about 2014 MU69? For one thing, it’s large for a typical Kuiper Belt object, or KBO — about 30 miles in diameter. It’s also within the spacecraft’s reach, given its current heading and available fuel. Now that they’ve had a solid look at Pluto — New Horizons is even now transmitting data and pictures from its flyby last month — they hope to understand more about the Kuiper Belt with a closeup look at a more typical KBO. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered the object only last year.

New Horizons was launched atop an Atlas V rocket in 2006 and flew more than three billion miles to Pluto by way of a gravity assist at Jupiter at a speed of about 36,000 miles per hour, making it arguably one of the fastest spacecraft ever. It passed the orbit of our moon in about nine hours — compared to the four days it took the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s — and reached Jupiter in about a year.

NASA has also released a new time-lapse video of the Pluto flyby; had you been aboard New Horizons, this is a sped-up version of what the trip would have looked like. The time-scale slows down as the craft gets closer to the planet, and the size of Pluto’s moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra were enhanced a bit to make them more visible. But everything else is just as it would appear IRL.

NASA scientist Stuart Robbins explained how he made the video in a blog post here. It’s about 24 seconds long, so enjoy.

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