NASA has announced that the New Horizons spacecraft’s next mission will involve its most ambitious fly-by to date. The Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 fly-by, which is set to take place in 2019 will take the spacecraft three times closer to its target than its famously ambitious fly-by of Pluto in 2015.
The 2019 mission will mark our farthest planetary encounter in history with MU69 currently at 1.5 billion kilometers from New Horizons’ last stop, Pluto. The fly-by will bring the spacecraft within just 3,500 kilometers of the object, a full 9,000 kilometers closer than its last fly-by. NASA has, however, cautioned that if the spacecraft encounters unexpected debris around MU69, they plan to increase the fly-by distance to 10,000 kilometers to ensure the safety of New Horizons.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this encore performance from New Horizons,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director. “This mission keeps pushing the limits of what’s possible, and I’m looking forward to the images and data of the most distant object any spacecraft has ever explored.”
If all goes well and New Horizons is able to perform the MU69 fly-by at 3,500 kilometers, the spacecraft’s highest-resolution camera will be able to pick out objects just 70 meters across. This will mark a huge improvement on the 183 meters achieved on its Pluto fly-by.
Many aspects were considered when making the choice to get so close to MU69 with John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) explaining, “The considerations included what is known about MU69’s size, shape and the likelihood of hazards near it, the challenges of navigating close to MU69 while obtaining sharp and well-exposed images, and other spacecraft resources and capabilities”.
Needless to say, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 fly-by in 2019 should be an event to look forward to.
Image Source: NASA