The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto about a month and a half ago, has been given a new target by NASA. The target is called 2014 MU69 and has been nicknamed PT1 meaning potential target 1. It lies deep in the Kuiper belt at a distance of about 1.6 billion kilometres past Pluto.
PT1 is about 45 kilometres across. It is a large, icy object that is of interest because it may reveal secrets about what the solar system was like when it had just formed 4.6 billion years ago.
New Horizons will arrive at PT1 in early 2019 so it will be some time before it reaches its destination. NASA will adjust the direction of the spacecraft in late October. The official mission of New Horizons ends in 2016 so as of right now, NASA doesn’t have the funding to examine the object and will apply for additional funding next year.
New Horizons has provided NASA with an amazing opportunity to study objects in the Kuiper belt from up close. No other spacecraft has been up close and personal to Kuiper Belt objects and allowed NASA scientists the opportunity to study them in great detail. This will be the first time we will see detailed images of objects in the Kuiper belt.
PT1 was discovered by the Hubble telescope in 2014 along with 4 other objects in the general path of New Horizons, all of which were candidates for it to visit next. Ultimately, PT1 was selected because it required the least amount of fuel to get too. Finding these objects was not easy because of their small size. The search started in 2011 and ended in 2014.
“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. 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.” Said Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.
PT1 is a frozen block of rock and ice formed not long after the solar system did. PT1 is very similar to the type of objects that accreted to form Pluto and other dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt.
The New Horizons spacecraft has only just started sending back data to Earth from the Pluto flyby and will take several more months to send it all.