NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made history last month when it flew past Pluto and took amazing images of the dwarf planet. The probe's mission though isn't over yet as NASA announced its next potential destination.
In a statement, the U.S. space agency said that New Horizons' next target will likely be a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) called 2014 MU69, which lies about a billion miles beyond Pluto.
NASA still has to officially approve a mission extension for the second flyby though, which is set to happen in 2019. The agency said that while it has selected 2014 MU69 as Horizon's new target, it will conduct a detailed assessment prior to green-lighting the mission extension as part of a normal review process.
NASA scientists said that such extended mission would be less expensive compared with the prime mission albeit it is hoped to offer new and exciting science.
New Horizons carries extra fuel that would allow for a KBO flyby. Its power system can operate for more years and its communication system can also work from far beyond Pluto.
The probe's target object, which was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope last year, is estimated to be under 30 miles in diameter or between 0.5 and 1 percent of Pluto's size.
"2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. "Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen."
Scientists believe that the objects in the Kuiper belt remained mostly unchanged since the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago so they hope that these can serve as a kind of time capsule that could shed light on the formation of Earth and the solar system.
John Spencer, from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado said that detailed images and other data that the New Horizons could gather from a KBO flyby could be crucial in changing current understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs.
The New Horizon's spacecraft is now 3 billion miles away from Earth; 35,323,200 miles from Pluto, and 3,096,360,000 miles from the sun. For better visualization, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory provides computer-generated images of the current location of the spacecraft.