New Horizons to be first spacecraft to visit icy Kuiper Belt after historic Pluto mission

in space on (#JYWP)
The New Horizons spacecraft - currently 3 billion miles [4.9 billion kilometers] from Earth - is just starting to transmit the bulk of the images and other data, stored on its digital recorders, from its historic July encounter with the Pluto system. Now, NASA scientists have revealed plans to send the spacecraft on another survey mission to a distant and small Kuiper Belt object (KBO), dubbed 2014 MU69, around one billion miles away from Pluto.

Unlike asteroids, KBOs have been heated only slightly by the Sun, and are thought to represent a well preserved, deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago. 'The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs.' A visit to the Kuiper Belt will take the spacecraft truly into the unknown. Little is understood about the mysterious dots of light that orbit out there.

It will become the first spacecraft to visit one of the icy blocks encircling our solar system in the ring of debris called the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons will perform a series of four maneuverers in late October and early November to set its course toward 2014 MU69, which it expects to reach on January 1, 2019. Any delays from those dates would cost precious fuel and add mission risk. After that, the spacecraft will continue to glide out beyond our solar system into the galaxy almost unchanged for eternity, but it will only be possible to maintain contact and perform observations with it while its nuclear power source lasts, which could be another 20 years.

There is now a public campaign to push NASA to into allocating the funds necessary to extend the New Horizons mission by writing to members of congress. Campaigners have calculated that it costs $0.15 per American per year for the New Horizons mission.

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