NASA said Friday that it would extend New Horizons mission, which made history in 2015 with the humanity’s first-ever flyby of dwarf planet Pluto, deeper into the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons probe is now on the course to reach another object in the Belt called 2014 MU69. The probe is expected to reach its destination on Jan. 1, 2019.
Jim Green, senior planetary scientist at NASA said that the scientific data beamed back by the tiny probe continues to surprise scientists worldwide to this day. Green added Friday, when he broke the news of a mission extension, that the mission team was excited over the new chance to explore the dark rims of the solar system.
He noted that scientists were not aware of MU69’s existence when New Horizons was launched ten years ago. MU69 was first detected in 2012 by the Hubble space observatory.
So far, scientists know only its location, about 930 million miles beyond dwarf planet Pluto, and its diameter, about 28 miles. The team also suspects that the icy space rock may be as old as the solar system, so it could provide useful clues on the “building blocks” of the system.
Mission scientists explained that because objects located within the Kuiper Belt, also known as KBOs, are located so far from the sun, they spent so many years in the deep freeze that they could provide an accurate snapshot of what the solar system might have looked like in its early days.
On Friday, NASA also announced that the Dawn probe will continue to orbit dwarf planet Ceres in the main belt. Ceres is about to reach perihelion, or its closes point to the sun, which could spur unprecedented scientific data.
NASA initially planned to move Dawn to another asteroid within the belt called Adeona.But in the meantime, it reached the conclusion that the data Ceres may provide this year may be a lot more significant than an Adeona flyby.
This week, NASA announced modifications or extensions to seven more missions across the solar system. NASA extended the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, the Curiosity rover and Opportunity Mars missions, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, the Mars Odyssey orbiter mission, and an effort to help the ESA reach the Red Planet.
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