NASA announced the choice of a target for the second mission of the New Horizons space probe. It’s a so-called Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) officially called 2014 MU69. Informally called PT1 (Potential Target 1), it’s one of the objects selected in October 2014 among those discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope with just that purpose.
It’s been about a month and a half since the historic Pluto and its moons flyby of the New Horizons space probe. Because of the distance, the transmission speed is so low that the many data collected on that occasion will keep on arriving for many months. However, at NASA they need to plan missions well in advance, so much that last year there was already a certain frenzy to find a new target.
The new journey of the New Horizons space probe requires new maneuvers so the earlier they start the less fuel must be used to reach it. This provides more leeway for further corrections later. The final proposal will then be evaluated by an independent team of experts who must examin a plan already quite accurate, therefore to have official approval to the next New Horizons mission a specific target must be selected.
From the beginning, the New Horizons mission was planned to continue in the Kuiper belt after its Pluto flyby. The spacecraft’s communication system is designed to operate at distances much greater than the dwarf planet’s and the scientific instruments can operate for many years to come. Having extra fuel in the New Horizons’s tanks wasn’t a problem so the new mission was already scheduled but there wasn’t a target yet.
The New Horizons team hoped to find a KBO much earlier but in the end it was found just in time. It’s so small that even the Hubble Space Telescope provided very little information about it. The estimate of its length is around 45 km (about 30 miles), which means it’s an asteroid.
The interest in objects such as 2014 MU69 is the fact that at that distance from the Sun it’s likely to have remained almost unchanged from the period of the solar system’s formation. Essentially, the New Horizons space probe will study a kind of fossil of about 4.5 billion years ago to better understand how planets were formed. If all goes well, it will reach it at the beginning of 2019.