Following the successful flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft, the team behind it has been given a new mission.
NASA scientists will now try to fly New Horizons to 2014 MU69, a small Kuiper belt object that is located a massive 1 billion miles past Pluto.
"Even as the New Horizon 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," said John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.
The probe should make the flyby around January 2019, and it makes sense as a target for NASA because of the fact that the objects formed in the Kuiper belt are considered to be some of the earliest objects to form in our solar system. The Kuiper belt itself, full of icy objects, was first discovered by scientists in 1992, and extends from the orbit of Neptune to around 9 billion miles past the sun.
New Horizons was launched on top of an Atlas rocket back in 2006, flying over 3 billion miles to Pluto. Much of this trip was helped along by a gravity assist passing Jupiter, speeding at around 36,000 mph, making it arguably one of the fastest spacecraft ever.
The news isn't necessarily surprising. It was always thought that New Horizons would go on to fly toward KBOs, Kuiper belt objects. It even has enough fuel to perform the flyby, and its communications system is designed to be able to work far beyond Pluto.
The team behind the spacecraft will find somewhere to go after the Kuiper belt flyby, too, although the odds of the spacecraft making it there are low considering the amount of fuel that will be left at the time.
NASA recently released a number of stunning images of Pluto, and has also released a time-lapse video of the flyby.