Good news, space exploration fans. With the Juno spacecraft about to arrive at Jupiter today, NASA has also confirmed that the New Horizons mission has been granted an extension.
This means that the spacecraft will be exploring another object after Pluto, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) less than 45 kilometers (30 miles) across called 2014 MU69. It is located about 1.6 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) further from the Sun than Pluto.
The decision is not wholly surprising – after all, why send a spacecraft on a decade-long mission to the outer Solar System if you aren’t going to make the most if it? But it’s still very welcome news to the team working on the mission.
“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer Solar System to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green in a statement.
The flyby is going to take place on January 1, 2019, with New Horizons passing closer than it got to Pluto. But while the extension has just been approved, the New Horizons team actually began planning for it since last year, performing adjustments in the spacecraft’s trajectory in October and November to ensure it could reach the target without using up all of its fuel.
On its way to this body, New Horizons will also be observing about two dozen other KBOs from a much greater distance. This will include distant views of Eris, a dwarf planet similar in size to Pluto. Although New Horizons is further from Eris than Earth, its different vantage point will give us views of Eris that are not possible from our home planet.
Studying these distant objects, believed to be remnants of the early Solar System, could give us more clues as to our own beginnings. And the images and data returned are sure to be fascinating, although it's unlikely 2014 MU69 will be as exciting to look at as Pluto.
It’s not just New Horizons that received some good news, though. NASA also approved extensions for seven other missions, which include the Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity. But, sadly, one mission didn’t get the extension it was hoping for. The team behind the Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around Ceres in the asteroid belt, had been hoping to send it to a new destination, an asteroid called Adeona. That extension has not been approved.
Still, it’s great to see New Horizons getting the support it deserves as it continues its intrepid mission out of the Solar System. Considering how many surprises Pluto has thrown up, the exciting science from this mission may have only just begun.