New Horizons now just two years from its next target—a dark, mysterious rock
New Horizons continues to deliver the goods. Having sent back all of the data collected during its Pluto flyby in 2015, the spacecraft is still speeding along at a velocity of 14.32 kilometers per second relative to the Sun. That's allowed it to travel almost halfway between Pluto and its next target, a small Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. By last Sunday, in fact, it had come to within two years of its flyby date—Jan. 1, 2019.
At this point, mission managers are conducting operations on the fly (pun intended). That's because the Hubble Space Telescope only found the object in June, 2014, barely a year before New Horizons' flyby of Pluto. When NASA formally selected MU69 as the spacecraft's next target in late 2015, scientists were in the midst of downloading and analyzing data about the Pluto system.
But now the focus is shifting to the new object, and this has led to a flurry of planning as mission scientists must design, write, and test the spacecraft's command sequences for its second flyby. "For Pluto, that job took most of 2009 to 2013," New Horizon's principal investor, Alan Stern, recently explained. "But because the MU69 flyby is barely two years away, we have to compress all the planning into the next 18 months. Why? Because flyby operations for 2014 MU69 will begin in July 2018."