CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – We're only days into 2018, but it’s already time to start making plans for New Year’s Day 2019.
Space enthusiasts can ring in Jan. 1 next year with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches the icy edges of our solar system a billion miles beyond its last flyby target, Pluto.
After its historic flyby of Pluto, NASA approved New Horizons for its extended mission onward toward a Kuiper Belt object, known as 2014 MU69.
NASA crowd-sourced ideas for a better nickname last year, the results have not been announced yet.
The KBO is located in the asteroid belt beyond Neptune that wraps around our solar system. Planetary scientists say there are hundreds of thousands unexplored small worlds. New Horizons team plans to put a small dent in exploring the asteroid belt by sending the spacecraft zooming by more than 24 Kuiper Belt objects.
The first of those flybys is set for New Year’s Day. It also marks the most distant object flyby in space exploration history at more than 4 billion miles from Earth.
“The Voyagers and Pioneers flew through the Kuiper Belt at a time when we didn’t know this region existed,” NASA Planetary Science Division director Jim Green said, referencing the first spacecraft to explore our solar system. “New Horizons is on the hunt to understand these objects, and we invite everyone to ring in the next year with the excitement of exploring the unknown.”
MU 69 could actually be more than one object, according to NASA. Scientists said in December that new data hints at a small moon near the object, but even from afar, the 20-mile-long world is looking interesting.
“The allure of its exploration is becoming stronger and stronger as we learn more and more about it. It’s just fantastic,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said in December.
New Horizons will be in hibernation until June. When it wakes up, all of New Horizons science instruments will get a checkup before it begins its initial approach to the KBO in August.
Stern said once New Horizons is "awake" the spacecraft will begin sending back long-distant imaging of the KBO and other objects that will help the mission team narrow in on its target for the Jan. 1 event.
If NASA’s promotion of the 2015 Pluto flyby was any indication the space agency will likely plan events around the first KBO flyby, so mark that date: Jan. 1, 2019.
Get those 2019 party hats ready and ring in next year with exploration, literally, out of this world.