Beyond Pluto: How will New Horizons spend its remaining fuel?

Zooming past Pluto at 52,000km/h might be considered enough for one car-sized spacecraft’s lifetime, especially when it’s sent back such amazing pictures of a never-before-seen world.

Beyond Pluto: How will New Horizons spend its remaining fuel?

Not for New Horizons, though. Its journey out of the solar system is taking it deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious region of small bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Its target, 2014 MU

69, is a classical Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), or “cubewano” (the name comes from the first object discovered after Pluto – named 1992 QB1), estimated to be up to 45km in diameter, orbiting around a billion miles from Pluto and 44AU from the sun. An AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance from the Earth to the sun – 93 million miles – and 44AU expressed in miles is the sort of number that will make your calculator run out of zeroes.

“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey [a National Research Council project that flags up potential NASA missions] desired us to fly by,” says New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute 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.”new_horizons_after_pluto

The probe won’t reach its target until the very end of 2018 at the earliest, so what else is out there in the Kuiper Belt?

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