The New Horizons probe, which flew by the dwarf planet Pluto in July 2015, may have provided scientists with new scientific data, but it is not yet done exploring the far outer solar system, as NASA has approved a mission extension for the probe.
The New Horizons is now set to fly by 2014 MU69, an object that lies about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto in the Kuiper belt, a region of the solar system beyond the planets that contains small bodies or remnants from the formation of the Solar System.
The small Kuiper object is an icy relic left behind from the planet formation era. It was discovered only two years ago. Scientists have not yet found it when the Pluto probe was launched in 2006.
Compared with Pluto, which spans 1,474 miles wide, 2014 MU69 is estimated to be only between 13 to 25 miles across. It is believed to be among the first building blocks of the Solar System.
The new mission is considered important, as scientists hope the flyby will allow them to learn more about planetary accretion, a process of planetary formation that occurs when orbiting materials collide and stick to form clumps of matter that gradually grow into a larger body.
Alex Parker, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who works on the New Horizons mission, explained that the 2014 MU69 is part of the "Cold Classical" Kuiper belt.
The cold classicals appear as a surviving remnant of the disk of material from which planets were formed and seem to have evaded much of the violent processes that other minor planets were subjected to.
"This makes 2014 MU69 the clearest window into the era of planet formation that we have ever had the chance to see up close," Parker said.
Writing for the mission extension proposal, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, also from Southwest Research Institute, said that 2014 MU69 will be the most pristine object to be visited by any space mission given its 4-plus-billion-year existence in a cold region far from the sun.
"The exploration of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs like MU69 by New Horizons would transform Kuiper Belt and KBO science from a purely astronomical pursuit, as it is today, to a geological and geophysical pursuit," said Stern.
The New Horizons is expected to arrive at the 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. NASA's approval for New Horizons to extend its mission was based on the 2016 Planetary Mission Senior Review Panel report.