NASA’s New Horizons Pluto probe, was the first-ever flyby in July 2015, has got another lease of life to probe beyond Pluto by one more billion miles until 2019 when the spacecraft reaches a smaler space object 2014 MU69 in the dark and frigid Kuiper Belt.
“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “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.”
However, the new object is too small compared to Pluto, almost 1% in size, around 13 to 25 miles (21 to 40 km). Since the mission was highly successful travelling millions of miles in cold storage away from the sun, its additional life lease may help NASA to understand how an ancient smaller object MU69 would be like. Once New Horizons reaches within 2000 miles of MU69, it would throw up entirely different picture of the universe.
NASA has rejected other proposals to send Dawn spacecraft to study Adeona, another space body like Ceres. “The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion — the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” Green said.
2014 MU69, originally termed PT1 and 1110113Y by the New Horizons and Hubble teams, respectively, is in the classical Kuiper belt. It was found in June 2014 as the name suggests through the Hubble Space Telescope during a preliminary survey to find a suitable Kuiper belt object for the New Horizons probe beyond Pluto.
Based on its brightness and distance, 2014 MU69 is estimated to have a diameter of 2- to 30 miles (30–45 km) and its orbital period is about 293 years, with a low inclination and low eccentricity. The unexpected orbit period makes it a cold classical Kuiper belt object which may not have undergone significant perturbations, said studies.