NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has successfully performed the last in a series of four targeting manoeuvres that set it on course for a January 2019 encounter with 2014 MU69. This ancient body in the Kuiper Belt is more than a billion miles beyond Pluto; New Horizons will explore it if NASA approves an extended mission.
The four propulsive manoeuvres were the most distant trajectory corrections ever performed by any spacecraft. The fourth manoeuvre, programmed into the spacecraft’s computers and executed with New Horizons’ hydrazine-fueled thrusters, started at approximately 1:15pm EST (6:15pm GMT) on Wednesday, 4 November, and lasted just under 20 minutes. Spacecraft operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, began receiving data through NASA’s Deep Space Network just before 7pm EST Wednesday (12am GMT Thursday, 5 November) indicating the final targeting manoeuvre went as planned.
The manoeuvres didn’t speed or slow the spacecraft as much as they “pushed” New Horizons sideways, giving it a 57 metre per second (128 mile per hour) nudge toward the KBO. That’s enough to make New Horizons intercept MU69 in just over three years.
“This is another milestone in the life of an already successful mission that’s returning exciting new data every day,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These course adjustments preserve the option of studying an even more distant object in the future, as New Horizons continues its remarkable journey.”
The New Horizons team will submit a formal proposal to NASA for the extended mission to 2014 MU69 in early 2016. The science team hopes to explore even closer to MU69 than New Horizons came to Pluto on 14 July, which was approximately 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometres).
“New Horizons is healthy and now on course to make the first exploration of a building block of small planets like Pluto, and we’re excited to propose its exploration to NASA,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.The KBO targeting manoeuvres were the mission’s largest and longest, and carried out in a succession faster than any sequence of previous New Horizons engine burns. They were also incredibly accurate, performing almost exactly as they were designed and setting New Horizons on the course mission designers predicted. “The performance of each manoeuvre was spot on,” said APL’s Gabe Rogers, New Horizons spacecraft systems engineer and guidance and control lead.
The first three manoeuvres were carried out on 22, 25 and 28 October. At the time of yesterday’s manoeuvre, New Horizons, speeding toward deeper space at more than 32,000 miles per hour, was approximately 84 million miles (135 million kilometres) beyond Pluto and nearly 3.2 billion miles (about 5.1 billion kilometres) from Earth. The spacecraft is currently 895 million miles (1.44 billion kilometers) from MU69. All systems remain healthy and the spacecraft continues to transmit data stored on its digital recorders from its flight through the Pluto system in July.