NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has completed a small maneuver that sets it on its way to its next target – a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) located 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from Earth called 2014 MU69 – on New Year’s Day 2019.
Not long after New Horizons passed Pluto in July 2015, the spacecraft has been making its way towards this distant object. Believed to be no more than 45 kilometers (30 miles) across, MU69 is thought to be a remnant of the early Solar System, and may give us an insight into our formation.
Yesterday, February 1, New Horizons fired its thrusters for 44 seconds, adjusting its velocity by a tiny 44 centimeters (17 inches) per second, or one mile per hour. It is the first time the trajectory of New Horizons has been changed since it performed four maneuvers in 2015.
This latest change was needed after the team used the Hubble Space Telescope to refine measurements of MU69’s orbit. Now, New Horizons is on course to fly past the object, snapping images and taking data as it goes.
“One mile per hour may not sound like much, but over the next 23 months, as we approach MU69, that maneuver will add up to an aim point refinement of almost 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers),” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.
New Horizons is already performing science beyond Pluto, looking at various KBOs in detail not possible from Earth. It did this for the first time in May 2016, looking at an object called 1994 JR1 that measures 145 kilometers (90 miles) across.
This year, we’ll be saying goodbye to another of our deep space vehicles, the Cassini spacecraft currently in orbit around Saturn, when it enters the atmosphere of the gas giant in September. But for New Horizons, the next phase of its mission is just beginning – and that’s good news for us.