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What next for the Pluto mission?

New Horizons spacecraft, having left the Pluto-Charon system, is now destined to meet another Kuiper Belt Object, but which one?

Alan Stern, principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons Mission, speaking at the ScienceWriters2015 meeting on the campus of MIT, explained the next steps.

“When we were first proposing the mission NASA called for not just a flyby of Pluto, but further study of ancient Kuiper Belt objects, the building blocks of the small planets of the solar system. And so we designed the spacecraft to be able to do that,” he said.

The targets have been identified, he says, as reported by Scientific American.

“We found these targets with the Hubble Space Telescope. They’re very faint, they’re very hard to do. You can’t find them from the ground. We had five potential targets, we ended up selecting the one that we want to fly to in August. And in fact, in just over two weeks we’ll be firing the engines on New Horizons to retarget in that direction for that flyby…”

The object doesn’t even have a name yet, Stern says “just a licence plate”.

“It’s called 2014 MU69. I promise we’ll do better before the flyby. But this is going to be a really fascinating target scientifically.”

He said the object is about 10 times bigger and 1,000 times more massive than comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that Rosetta is orbiting.

“And that comet, by the way, is from the Kuiper Belt, it just came down into the inner solar system due to orbital dynamics. And this object that we’re going to fly by is also about a thousand times less massive than Pluto. So logarithmically it’s perched right in the middle between the comet that we’re studying with Rosetta and Pluto, the small planet that we just flew by and studied with New Horizons.

Stern said he hoped the mission would “connect the dots of planetary accretion” by studying this object and its composition.

“It’s been in this deep freeze for 4 billion years, and it should teach us a lot about the origin of the planets of the Kuiper Belt.”

All that remains is for NASA to approve a funding proposal for the flyby to take place on 1 January 2019, Stern said.

Cosmos looked in detail at the continuing New Horizons mission and what it might find in the Kuiper Belt in September. Check out Beyond Pluto – New Horizons’ Next Target. 

 

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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