It’s official: NASA has extended the New Horizons mission. The spacecraft — which served its original purpose beautifully during last year’s historic flyby of the Pluto system — has been hurtling toward parts-less-known for months. In October of 2015, scientists had New Horizons fire its thrusters to reposition it for a course to 2014 MU69. Now, thanks to funding approval, the team knows it will be around to read the data when New Horizons reaches that new target in 2019.
‘‘The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,’’ NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green said in a statement. ‘‘We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.’’
Why study a random space rock? Many think of Pluto as sitting at the outer edge of the solar system, given the fact that it was once considered to be our most distant planet. But part of the reason for Pluto’s reassignment as a ‘‘dwarf’’ is the fact that it’s really, really not the last stop before interstellar space. In fact, it’s in the very inside of something called the Kuiper Belt — an asteroid belt full of space objects much more mysterious than Pluto.
The object 2014 MU69 sits 1 billion miles deeper into this chilly region of space — 1 billion miles closer to the real edge of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt is thought to contain objects that formed billions of years ago during the early days of our solar system. Because these bodies are kept so far from the sun — and, as a result, quite cold — they contain some pristine relics of the oldest building blocks from which our solar system formed.
If all goes as planned, New Horizons will reach the new target on Jan. 1, 2019. That’s going to be quite the New Year’s celebration.
New Horizons wasn’t the only mission to fare well in the latest budget announcement: Eight others also have been slated for extension. NASA extends missions when spacecraft outlive their primary purpose and scientists make a case for the value of continued exploration. One famously extendable mission has been the Mars rover Opportunity. Its primary mission was only three months long, yet it’s lasted for more than 12 years. Opportunity got another extension this time around.
The other extensions went to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO); Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN); Curiosity; the Mars Odyssey orbiter; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO); and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.
And last but not least, an extension was granted to Dawn, which is currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres — its second target, having first visited a comet called Vesta to compare and contrast the two objects.
‘‘Less than a year ago, I would have thought it was ridiculous that the spacecraft would even be operating at this point,’’ lead Dawn engineer Marc D. Rayman told the New York Times.
Some scientists floated the idea of Dawn visiting an asteroid called Adeona, but the mission extension will keep it orbiting around Ceres instead. Dawn would have had to leave for Adeona within a few weeks and NASA believes there’s still much more to learn from gazing down at Ceres.
‘‘The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion — the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,’’ Green said in a statement.