NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is sending back incredible new information about Pluto -- but it's headed somewhere entirely different.
The incredible discoveries just keep coming for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, months after it passed by Pluto — as we reported recently, scientists were amazed to find a complete lack of craters on one part of Pluto’s surface indicating geological activity that had been thought virtually impossible aboard the tiny dwarf planet.
It’s another incredible discovery that is causing scientists to learn more and more with each bit of data that trickles back from New Horizons. But where is the spacecraft headed next?
New Horizons didn’t have long to gather data as it zoomed past Pluto at a distance of just 7,800 miles way back on July 14, meaning that Pluto isn’t its final destination, although it was the primary one.
Now, Pluto is heading out into the distant Kuiper Belt, a ring of asteroids encircling our sun at the farthest edges of the solar system.
For the meantime, New Horizons will be looking back at the planet and doing a few experiments on Pluto’s night side, while also downlinking data. This will go on until January 2016 when the Pluto phase of the mission will officially end, although data delivery back to Earth will continue past that period since it is so slow and there is so much data to send back — about 50 gigabits, which takes a long time to download at just 2 kilobits per second.
But as 2016 rolls around, the NASA team will start turning their attention to two fascinating and strange bodies in the Kuiper Belt: 2014 MU69 and 2014 PN70, which are about a billion miles past Pluto — Pluto is 3 billion miles from Earth for perspective.
New Horizons won’t be able to fly past both with its limited fuel, so the team will have to make a decision at some point on which body to target.
What will scientists find there when they arrive? Who knows — and that’s the fun part of this mission, especially with the pressure to have a good flyby of Pluto completely out of the way.