New Horizons, the Pluto mission spacecraft, is getting ready to head further out in the Kuiper Belt stellar region as it is embarking on a new exploration mission.
Back in 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft. It is an interplanetary space probe. The launch and spacecraft are part of the New Frontiers program.
New Horizon’s primary target was Pluto’s system. It set out to perform a fly-by by the dwarf planet. And two years ago, it reached its goal. The space probe offered incredibly detailed images of Pluto. These offered and will continue to be a source of new information about the planet.
But New Horizons also had a secondary target. Its other mission is to perform a secondary fly-by. This will target one or more KBOs. These are Kuiper Belt Objects.
Pluto is a KBO as well. It is the biggest yet such space object. New Horizons is the first spacecraft to have visited its system. Besides Pluto, the probe also analyzed its various moons.
On January 19, Alan Stern offered new details about the fly-bys. He is the Southwest Research Institute New Horizons principal investigator. Last Thursday, he announced that all the data captured by the probe has been officially sent.
Beaming the all data back to Earth took around 16 months. And now, New Horizons can clean its memory and continue to its secondary mission.
The data gathered on Pluto reportedly excited scientists. Stern stated that it only increased their curiosity as to the other KBOs. And it also pointed out another fact. Small and dwarf planets can be just as complex and interesting as large ones.
Now, the team is looking forward to continuing its exploration of Kuiper’s Belt. And New Horizons will go further in the region than any other probe.
The mission team is currently analyzing all the received data. These studies can continue for some good years. They may even continue some decades from now on.
And they are also preparing for the next space encounter. Which is quite close at hand. In January 2019, New Horizons will be flying by 2014 MU69. Pluto may be the biggest KBO. But 2014 MU69 is a better representative of their vast majority.
In passing by it, researchers are hoping for a general picture. 2014 MU69 could offer some generally applicable data on the space objects orbiting the region.
MU69 is much smaller than Pluto. In size, it is quite comparable to the North American continent. It is about 1,1475 miles in diameter. However, it doesn’t surpass 30 miles across.
This KBO is also reportedly very old. But also special as well. Kelsi Singer offered some details. She is also part of the New Horizons science team. According to Singer, MU69 has a special orbit type.
This could potentially mark it as a primordial space object. It may be one of the left-over pieces from the Solar System’s early days. If this proves to be true, it could offer a great opportunity. New Horizons could be offering data on one of the system’s building blocks. It remains to be seen if this special orbit will prove its very interesting status.
New Horizons has quite some fuel left in it. And 2014 MU69 is a perfect next target. Its location is within proper reach.
The aforementioned Singer explained. Although the spacecraft has fuel, it also has limitations. It is not enough to reach all KBOs. MU69 is both a very interesting space object. And is also situated in a fuel-reaching area. It is one of the three potential future target candidates.
Two other KBOs were selected. However, these were are the very edges of the probe’s fuel limit.
New Horizons is powered by radioactive plutonium. Its power supply could keep it going well towards the middle 2030’s. Still, its 2019 MU69 fly-by will have its costs. After it, New Horizons will probably not have enough fuel left for special maneuvers.
Even so, the mission will continue going further. It may still observe other space objects. Probably unidentified ones. The scientists have not noted any new ones yet, but they may be detected in the future.
Image Source: Wikimedia