NASA carefully steers New Horizons mission toward second target

After months of beaming back one awe-inducing photo after another of Pluto’s icy landscape, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is heading toward a new destination roughly one billion miles away from the dwarf planet.

Flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland initiated the first of four maneuvers Thursday that are needed to change the probe’s trajectory toward an object elsewhere in the Kuiper Belt.

Since the spacecraft is three billion miles from Earth, all four commands will take two weeks to complete, the Associated Press reported.

The New Horizons team selected the destination for a secondary mission in August. The target is an object known as 2014 MU69, or “Potential Target 1” (PT1). The probe is expected to reach the nearly 30-mile-wide object in the far reaches of the solar system by January 2019, though NASA must receive approval from an independent panel before they can fully execute the second mission. NASA’s proposal to fund the flyby and documentation of the 2014 MU69 object is due in 2016.

Little is known about PT1, even though it was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA scientists have also said a flyby in a largely unexplored region of space would provide clues to understanding the solar system’s birth, which occurred around 4.6 billion years ago.

Hubble discovery images of "PT1," or "Potentially Target" 1. Image courtesy of NASA/ESA/SwRI/JHU/APL

Hubble discovery images of “PT1,” or “Potentially Target” 1. Image courtesy of NASA/ESA/SwRI/JHU/APL

The PT1 object is approximately one percent the size of Pluto, but 10 times larger than a typical comet. NASA said that the New Horizons spacecraft was equipped with excess nuclear fuel to potentially tackle a second flyby. PT1’s location is reachable with the fuel leftover from New Horizon’s historic flyby of Pluto.

Lead scientist Alan Stern told AP that the goal was to get the New Horizons spacecraft closer to PT1 than the distance — 7,770 miles — it came within Pluto.