New Horizons was launched 2006 and has already flown 3 billion miles over 10 years on its journey of discovery. We now know Pluto is active with recent ice flows and a thin atmosphere. But the mission is far from over. It’s still moving outwards at about 15km per second, it has plenty of fuel, and the instrument packages are still working. Now astronomers get a free shot at the next target.
The terrain beyond Pluto is a mostly unexplored treasure trove of opportunities for discovery, known as the Kuiper Belt. This realm is home to millions of small icy bodies, and present vital clues to the origins of the solar system. Usually the only chance we have to see one of these close up is when they visit us, as comets. But now as New Horizons plummets on into this space NASA have picked a target so we can really see one of these up close. The rather mundanely-named 2014MU69 was selected last year as the best follow on target. It is probably another 1.5 billion miles away and may be only a few 10km across, but we know its there and last week NASA carried out the course corrections to send the spacecraft that way. In Jan 2019, the spacecraft should thread the needle and intersect 2014MU69.
Kind of like space billiards, but with moving targets.
This mission hasn’t actually been approved by NASA yet but the additional expense getting to MU69 is small compared to the large payoff. Opportunities to visit our distant cousins are rare, so this is one we’ll take advantage of.