With the latest success of the New Horizons spacecraft in exploring the Pluto system, the NASA science team behind the project is now preparing for the orbital probe's next mission that will take it even further to the edge of the Solar System.
According to the space agency, New Horizons' next target is an icy space rock known as 2014 MU69, which is located deeper into the Kuiper Belt. Compared to other destinations in space explored by spacecraft, 2014 MU69 will be the first to be studied by a probe even before it is actually discovered.
Researchers believe that examining 2014 MU69 will provide humans with a better understanding as to what happened in the Solar System during the early stages of its development.
When NASA was looking for a potential destination for the spacecraft after it wraps up its exploration of Pluto, several objects in the Kuiper Belt were suggested by members of the New Horizons mission.
"Even as the New Horizon's spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer," NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld said.
The space agency ultimately decided to direct New Horizons to 2014 MU69 because of its relatively close distance to Pluto as well as its potential for substantial exploration.
Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, explained that 2014 MU69 makes an ideal destination for the space probe because it fits the type of ancient Kuiper Belt object (KBO) that the Decadal Survey would like NASA to explore next.
Stern added that going to where 2014 MU69 is found won't cost too much fuel for New Horizons, which will only use its remaining fuel supply to make the journey further into the Kuiper Belt. It will also allow the spacecraft to carry out flybys of the KBO.
However, there are other factors that could make the mission to the KBO much more challenging for the New Horizons team.
Based on observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope, 2014 MU69 appears to be a very small object, measuring only at about 30 miles across. This makes it less than one percent the total size of the dwarf planet Pluto.
Scientists believe that the brighter an object in space is, the smaller its actual size is. The darker an object registers in observations, the more likely it is to be larger.
It is possible that objects such as 2014 MU69 could have helped form Pluto sometime in the past.
John Spencer, a member of the New Horizons team, said that researchers will be able to learn more about the KBO through close-up flybys of the spacecraft than they ever will through observations from Earth.
"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," Spencer said.
The researchers estimate that the New Horizons spacecraft will be able to take high quality images of 2014 MU69 about 80 days before it completes its encounter of the KBO in October 2018. It will make its first flyby of the KBO in January 2019.