Cape Canaveral, Oct 22: The spacecraft that gave us the first close-up views of Pluto now has a much smaller object in its sights. NASA's New Horizons was programmed to fire its thrusters today afternoon, putting it on 0track to fly past a recently discovered, less than 30-mile-wide object out on the solar system frontier.
The close encounter with what's known as 2014 MU69 would occur in 2019. It orbits nearly 1.6 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) beyond Pluto. Flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, sent commands in advance for the course change.
Launched in 2006, New Horizons became Pluto's first visitor from planet Earth in July. The spacecraft remains in excellent health following a 4.8 billion kilometer (3 billion-mile) journey and still holds a year's worth of scientific data for transmission back to Earth.
NASA and the New Horizons team chose 2014 MU69 in August as New Horizons' next potential target, thus the nickname PT-1. Like Pluto, MU69 orbits the sun in the frozen, twilight zone known as the Kuiper Belt.
The extremely remote, faint object was spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. It beat out a few other candidates because it will take less fuel to get there. MU69 is thought to be 10 times larger and 1,000 times more massive than average comets, including the one being orbited right now by Europe's Rosetta spacecraft.
On the other end, MU69 is barely 1 percent the size of Pluto and perhaps one-ten-thousandth the mass of the dwarf planet. So the new target is a good middle ground, according to scientists. Lead scientist Alan Stern said flight controllers still are working out just how close New Horizons will be able to zoom past MU69.
The goal is to get closer than the 12,500 billion kilometers (7,770 miles) that the spacecraft came within Pluto. The team plans to formally ask NASA next year to fund the mission extension for studying MU69.