Earlier this week the US space agency’s probe passed the halfway point between Pluto and its next flyby target – a Kuiper Belt Object named 2014 MU69.
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, welcomed the impressive milestone in the field of space exploration.
He said: “It’s fantastic to have completed half the journey to our next flyby; that flyby will set the record for the most distant world ever explored in the history of civilization.”
The probe is currently speeding through space and is scheduled to reach MU69 on January 1, 2019.
NASA's New Horizons space probe mission is a journey beyond the solar system
What is NASA’s New Horizons?
NASA’s New Horizons is the name given to ambitious reconnaissance mission to the icy dwarf planet Pluto and beyond.
Launched in 2006 from Cape Canaveral, the New Horizons space probe sped through the solar system before reaching Pluto in 2015.
On the day of the launch, New Horizons project manager Glen Fountain said it was the beginning of a very long and exciting journey.
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A image form Ed White’s personal photograph album of the Gemini 4 mission, June 1965.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in the tradition of the Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager missions
Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager
“The team has worked hard for the past four years to get the spacecraft ready for the voyage to Pluto and beyond, to places we've never seen up close,” he said.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in the tradition of the Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager missions to set out for first looks in our solar system.”
Before New Horizons reached Pluto, it conducted scientific studies of Jupiter when it swung into its gravitational orbit for a speed boost.
On July 14, 2015, New Horizon made its closest approach to Pluto. But NASA did not rest on its laurels and instead set its sights the distant MU69.
The space probe is travelling through space at a speed of 16 kilometres an hour
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said: “2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO (Kuiper Belt Object), formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by.
“Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach, leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
The New Horizons spacecraft itself is not much bigger than a grand piano wth a satellite on top of it.
The spacecraft has enough fuel left to reach the KBO 2014 MU69
The golden exterior of the probe is covered in sensitive tools for measuring and collecting data for NASA.
The probe is capable of collecting thermal and ultraviolet images of planetary surfaces as well as inspecting atmospheric compositions.
Stunning snapshots of Pluto’s surface were captured thanks to a Long Range Reconnaissance Imager telescopic camera fitted on the spacecraft.
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Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft
What is MU69?
2014 MU69 is a distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) about one billion miles away from Pluto.
KBOs are well preserved evidence of what the outer reaches of the solar system were like 4.6 billion years ago.
These frozen chunks of rock, untouched by sun rays, orbit on the outer rims of the solar system in Kuiper’s Belt.