After its flyby of the ninth planet of our solar system or the dwarf planet, scientists at NASA are looking to turn the New Horizons spacecraft towards a fresh target. According to a recent announcement made by the space agency, after Pluto, New Horizons will now be exploring the Kuiper Belt.
NASA said on Friday that it has picked the next possible destination for its New Horizons mission. The spacecraft will now be moving towards the 2014 MU69, a tiny Kuiper Belt object or KBO. The 2014 MU69 orbits almost one billion miles beyond the dwarf planet.
Our Solar System’s Kuiper Belt region is situated beyond all planets identified to date. It extends from Neptune’s orbit to nearly 50 AU (astronomical unites) from the Sun. For those who don’t know: 1 AU is almost equal to the distance between the Sun and our home planet Earth.
The Kuiper Belt is significantly larger than the asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter; according to University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, the former is 20 times wider and 20-200 times bigger than the later.
The team at the New Horizons will now need to submit a proposal to NASA for funding the KBO mission. However, before NASA takes any decision about the mission, the mission will be evaluated by an independent expert team. If everything goes fine, the mission will start sometime next year.
Astronaut John Grunsfeld, the chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, said that as the New Horizons will speed away from Pluto to enter the Kuiper Belt and start streaming back exciting data about the region back to Earth, people at NASA will be looking outward in search of a new destination for the intrepid explorer.
He added that although discussions, whether this new mission to Kuiper Belt should be approved, will be held in the broader context of planetary science portfolio, people at NASA are expecting this newly announced mission to be a lot less expensive compared to the spacecraft’s prime mission. However, Grunsfeld said that the new mission in spite of being less expensive will be able to provide new, exciting science.
Here, it must be mentioned that New Horizons was originally designed for flying beyond Pluto and exploring KBOs. It even carried extra fuel for a flyby of the KBOs.