You are here

One Year Later, III

July 20, 2016

Even as New Horizons flew past Pluto a year ago this month, mission planners were already thinking about a new destination. The spacecraft’s instruments were still working fine, it had plenty of power and fuel, and it was well into the distant Kuiper Belt, a realm that had never before been explored. So they pored over pictures from Hubble Space Telescope for a new object to study.

The one they picked is a chunk of ice and rock known as 2014 MU69. It’s no more than about 25 miles in diameter, and it’s a billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. At that great range from the Sun’s warmth, it should be the best-preserved solar system object yet studied — a relic from the birth of the planets.

If all goes well, New Horizons will fly just 2,000 miles from MU69 on January 1st of 2019. Along the way, it’ll conduct long-range scans of other objects in the Kuiper Belt. Among other things, it’ll look for moons and rings around those objects.

After that, New Horizons might spend another year or two looking at objects beyond the Kuiper Belt. And before the craft goes silent, a group wants to upload messages from Earth on its computer. The group is already looking at ways to get pictures, music, and other contributions from people around the world. It’s awaiting approval from NASA to start the project in earnest — a greeting card to other civilizations from the home world of a craft that explored the edge of the solar system.

Script by Damond Benningfield

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.