NASA has given the green light to an extension of the current mission to the Kuiper Belt. After the historic flyby of planet Pluto last year, New Horizon spacecraft will perform another one within the belt.
New Horizon’s Next Stop
The next destination is called 2014 MU69, a mysterious Kuiper belt object located one billion miles away from the dwarf planet, which should be reached in 2019.
NASA scientists also plan to visit 20 more objects afterwards, or at least this is what mission investigator Allan Stern has said in April.
The space agency reassured us that the probe is fully operational, and could last 20 more years. The tiny craft will continue to collect scientific data deeper into the Kuiper Belt. Mission members acknowledged that Pluto flyby exceeded their expectations as they are still surprised by the data gathered back then.
A Challenging Mission
New Horizons data challenged past theories and computer models suggesting that Pluto is a cold dead world. In fact, the mission revealed that Pluto is geologically active under its icy crust and looks a lot more diverse than scientists have managed to imagine.
NASA’s Jim Green expressed his excitement over the extended mission to the “dark depths of the outer solar system” and explained that scientists had no knowledge of object 2014 MU69’s existence in 2006, when New Horizon was launched.
Among Kuiper Belt’s denizens, scientists explained, lie Pluto, comets, icy moons, and possibly other dwarf planets awaiting to be discovered. Pluto was relatively easy to spot as it is located on the outer reaches of the belt.
Dan Britt, a physicist from the University of Central Florida, described a mission to the Kuiper Belt as a “great frontier” of planetary science. Britt was recently picked to become a New Horizons science team member and study the new objects that will be discovered within the Kuiper Belt. He is now analyzing the geology of several icy leftovers inside the belt.
Scientists believe that the space rocks there may hold important clues to the creation of the solar system.
More missions to come
On Friday, NASA approved extension of other deep space missions including several Mars missions and a probe designed to orbit the Moon. Dawn spacecraft was ordered this week to continue its trip around dwarf planet Ceres. NASA scientists had hoped to move Dawn to an asteroid called Adeona since it has orbited Ceres for four years now.
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