NASA’s New Horizons probe has reached the halfway point between Pluto and its second target for flyby, a remote Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69.
New Horizons reached this milestone at midnight UTC last April 3, at a distance of 486.19 million miles from Pluto and the same distance to the distant asteroid.
Kuiper Belt Object Flyby
New Horizons targets swooping past MU69, which is almost 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, on Jan. 1, 2019. This will mark another record for space exploration.
“That flyby will set the record for the most distant world ever explored in the history of civilization,” noted principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in a statement, dubbing it “fantastic” to have already accomplished half the journey to the next flyby.
The probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will start to observe MU69 in September.
And while it continues to zoom along, the spacecraft is slightly slowing down as it gets more distant from the sun. At any rate, it is still speeding through the Kuiper Belt at around 32,000 miles each hour.
New Horizons In Action
Also for the first time since December 2014, New Horizons will enter a five-month hibernation later in the week as it faces 466 million miles more into its mission.
Given the groundbreaking Pluto flyby and the 16-month transmission of data obtained from Pluto, the spacecraft had to stay “awake” for over 2.5 years.
While awake, New Horizons’ instruments also observed 12 Kuiper Belt objects, studied dust as well as charged particles in the solar system’s twilight zone, and evaluated hydrogen gas in the heliosphere, a massive region surrounding the sun through which solar wind reaches and the sun maintains a magnetic effect.
The New Horizons probe arrived at Pluto back in July 2015 after launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida in January 2006. It serves as Pluto’s first guest from Earth.
At present, it is 3.5 billion miles from our planet, and it takes radio signals five hours and 20 minutes to get from the Johns Hopkins University control center in Maryland to the spacecraft.
Historic Pluto Flyby
The discoveries made by New Horizons in the form of images and space environment data have enhanced scientists’ knowledge of the Pluto system and offer enough signs and indicators of what can be expected from Kuiper Belt.
They hold solid value as Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, are considered ice dwarfs and distinguished by solid surfaces. Researchers have long speculated whether the great ball of ice could also be capable of hosting life.
Regarding New Horizons’ wealth of findings, Stern has a couple of favorites, including atmospheric hazes and lower atmospheric escape demolishing previous flyby models; indications of an internal water-ice ocean; and the gradual demystifying of the dark, red polar cap of Charon, to name a few.
The probe successfully imaged a weird and snakeskin-looking terrain on Pluto, or icy ridges that are around 1,650 feet tall and similar to Earth’s “penitentes” or bowl-shaped depressions manifesting in cold mountain regions. Apart from having these Earth-like icy ridges, the dwarf planet has also been found to host exotic icy mountains, a blue sky, and an actively evolving surface.