New Horizons team picks its next Kuiper Belt target

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The New Horizons science team has picked its next Kuiper Belt fly-by target beyond Pluto.

New Horizons will perform a series of four maneuvers in late October and early November to set its course toward 2014 MU69 – nicknamed “PT1” (for “Potential Target 1”) – which it expects to reach on January 1, 2019. Any delays from those dates would cost precious fuel and add mission risk. “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, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “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.”

The press release includes some silly gobbly-gook about how the science team can’t announce this as its official target because they still have to write up a proposal to submit to NASA, which then must ponder their decision and decree it valid. We all know this is ridiculous. Will NASA sit and ponder and make them miss their target? I doubt it.

The fly-by itself will be really exciting, because this object will truly be the most unusual we will have ever gotten a close look at, as it has spent its entire existence far out in the dim reaches of the solar system.


  • wodun

    “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby,”

    Wouldn’t this run into the same problem they did with Pluto in regard to just flying by not loitering?

    On Twitter they said that NASA approved the burn now they have to write the proposal for what they want to do. Seems like a done deal though.

  • It was never a “problem” that they didn’t go into orbit around Pluto. It was a fly-by. It was always a fly-by. Their speed coming from Earth made it impossible for them to slow down enough to go into orbit around any object. Similarly, they never planned to orbit their second target. Once again, their speed makes it impossible with the available fuel on board.

    In fact, to simply change their trajectory enough to zip past this second target they need to begin the course corrections soon, in October, or else they won’t have sufficient fuel to even make it.

  • danae

    These remote explorers simply amaze me. That they function so perfectly, for so long, while managing to communicate new information from such distances is, I think, marvelous. And the people who engineer, build, and direct their operations are even more so.

  • wodun

    Yes, that is what I was getting at. They just fly by because of the speed and lack of means to slow down and the same is true for this next target. The statement could be considered to imply otherwise.

    Maybe I should have said limitation or issue.

  • Steve

    A question I have not seen answered yet: Does the fuel required to change course also reduce the time the probe will be able to remain active and return information to Earth? And if so, by how much?

    I know the RTGs will remain active for some number of years just as the twin Voyagers do and Pioneer 10 before them. But will using up thruster fuel now mean a severely reduced lifetime for the spacecraft?

  • Gealon

    In in practice, no, the burn should not decrease NH’s life expectancy since the fine pointing needed to guide the high gain antenna is done using electrically powered gyros. The Voyager probes on the other hand use thrusters to accomplish their pointing and if memory serves are estimated to run out of fuel in the late 2020’s. NH should theoretically be able to stay in communication with Earth for as long as it’s RTG permits.

    I am going to stick a big caveat in here that I am at work and don’t have the time to properly double check my recollection of NH’s design, hopefully I’m not making a fool out of myself.

  • Steve

    Thanks for that reply, I am glad that NH will still be able to maneuver as long as it’s RTG’s hold out, which if The Voyager’s and Pioneer are any indication, could be decades from now. :-)

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