News Years Day 2019: Kuiper Belt Flyby for New Horizons

Artist's Impression of KBO Flyby Credit NASA

Artist’s Impression of KBO Flyby
Credit NASA

As it speeds away from its historic encounter with Pluto, NASA has identified the most promising target for the New Horizon’s next flyby, and it might present a scheduling issue for mission scientists and space enthusiasts who happen to be college football fans, at least for New Year’s Day 2019.

That is when New Horizons would fly past an appealing target of opportunity with the somewhat less appealing designation of 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) orbiting the sun in the deep reaches of the solar system a billion miles further out than Pluto, also designated as a KBO, albeit one which looks suspiciously like a planet.

NASA has the full story, but three things in particular stand out about the next phase of the historic mission. The first is that despite the success of the New Horizons probe to this point, and the inclusion of extra propellant to allow for anticipated post-Pluto course changes, the team must still submit a proposal for the next phase, and hopefully, receive funding. That will not be a problem. The second element noted in the story, is that without the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope and a dedicated, near desperate, search for a suitable KBO performed only one year ago, New Horizon’s might not have been able to reach any additional targets with the fuel available on-board. It needed at least one, and Hubble found five. It is yet another in a series of remarkable accomplishments which would not have happened if NASA had not overcome the initial hyper risk averse reaction to the Columbia accident and rethought a decision to cancel a final servicing mission to HST because it did not include an Abort to Station option in the event of heat shield damage.

And finally there is this, the real element, literally,  in the striking success of New Horizons thus far, as well as any additional discoveries it makes, is the precious supply of Plutonium 238 powering its RTG. It was reported last week that the Department of Energy will begin producing a sample batch of PU 238 in 2019. It will be the first time the U.S. has done so in 29 years. While that marks progress of a sort, the project production rate of 1.5 kg per year is one third of what NASA actually needs for a minimal return to deep space mission planning. And that amount is far less than what would be required for the U.S. to take advantage of falling launch costs and increasing capabilities to mount a 21st century program worthy of spacecraft such as Voyager, Viking, Cassini and New Horizons which first blazed the trail.

Posted in: Outer Planets

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