A spacecraft that made a historic flyby of Pluto in July has a new destination — an icy rock that may reveal what the outer solar system was like shortly after it formed 4.6 billion years ago.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft’s next target is 2014 MU69 and nicknamed PT 1 or “potential target 1,” the U.S. space agency announced Friday afternoon. The mysterious icy object is less than 45 kilometres across — a tiny fraction of the size of Pluto, which is 2,370 kilometres wide. PT 1 is 1.6 billion kilometres farther away than Pluto, which was itself 4.7 billion kilometres from Earth when the spacecraft flew by.
Both Pluto and PT 1 are in an outer region of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, which contains thousands of icy objects, some very small and others that are large enough to be considered dwarf planets, such as Pluto.
New Horizons will begin changing direction to target PT 1 in late October or early November and is expected to arrive on New Year’s Day 2019. If all goes well, it will take measurements and detailed images of a type of celestial object that has never been seen before.