In a late-day Friday announcement on July 1, 2016, NASA said that the first-ever spacecraft to visit the dwarf planet Pluto – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – has received the nod to fly onward to an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69. This object had not even been discovered when New Horizons was launched in 2006.
The spacecraft will rendezvous with 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.
NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green said:
The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise. We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system.
NASA also announced this week that – Based upon the 2016 Planetary Mission Senior Review Panel report – it has directed nine extended missions to plan for continued operations through fiscal years 2017 and 2018. However, NASA said:
Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.
In addition to the extension of the New Horizons mission, NASA determined that the Dawn spacecraft should remain at the dwarf planet Ceres, rather than changing course to the main belt asteroid Adeona.
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.
Also receiving NASA approval for mission extensions, contingent on available resources, are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.
Bottom line: The New Horizons spacecraft will continue on to 2014 MU69, the spacecraft will stay at Ceres rather than continue on to asteroid Adeona, and seven other NASA missions have also been given extended missions.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.